Activists push to make internet policy an election issue
Remember all that ruckus earlier this year about usage-based billing? Remember how a bunch of Canadians were really upset about how we pay for internet service in this country? I know, it seems like forever ago, so let me refresh your memory (and mine).
The focal point of much of the UBB debate was a petition called "Stop the Meter," organized by OpenMedia.ca. Since its launch in November 2010, more than 470,000 Canadians have signed the petition. Originally started as a response to proposed usage-based billing schemes, the petition became a sort of catch-all for Canadians' telecom frustrations, from restrictive cellphone contracts, to mobile data rates, to rural broadband access.
The anti-UBB movement in Canada seems have won a few victories. The CRTC decided to review its UBB decision. Tony Clement vowed to intervene if the CRTC didn't reverse its decision. And Bell Canada changed its UBB tune, replacing it with another confusing acronym: AVP, or aggregated volume pricing.
So my question is, now that we're in the middle of a federal election, what will OpenMedia do with its legion almost half a million angry Canadian telecom customers?
The answer: a new campaign, set to launch this week, called "Vote for the Internet."
And as much as I like the idea of planting a campaign sign in my lawn that simply reads "Internet," that's not what we're talking about.
Steve Anderson is the executive director of OpenMedia, and he told me the first part of the campaign is an online tool that will allow Canadians to e-mail their local candidates. "The letter pretty much just asks them, are they committed to working towards an open and accessible internet when they go to parliament?"
The idea here is to crowdsource on-the-record commitments from candidates about their digital policies.
"We just want to help people who care about the internet and the role it plays in society to make an informed decision when they vote," Anderson said.
Through the website, OpenMedia will also invite candidates to sign on as "pro-internet."
OpenMedia plans to send a more detailed survey to all the parties, asking them specific questions about their digital policies on issues like structural separation, reforming the CRTC, investment in broadband, net neutrality, and transparency in internet service. Anderson said his organization will simply report the results of the survey, and won't endorse parties or candidates.
"We're non-partisan. The only candidate we'll endorse is the internet," Anderson said, laughing.
The real goal here seems to be to raise the profile of digital issues in the current election debate. OpenMedia isn't not alone in this aim. In a recent column, Michael Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, listed a number of questions that he thinks Canadians should ask candidates about digital issues in this country — issues like usage-based billing, the transition to digital television, and copyright.
I have to wonder though, do enough people really care about the policy decisions behind broadband pricing and infrastructure to make this a viable election issue? Can such a geeky topic once again break through to the mainstream in the same way Stop The Meter did?
For his take, I called up Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at the University of Victoria. I wanted to get a better sense of how exactly election issues become election issues. Is OpenMedia's half-million e-mail addresses enough?
Pilon told me there are a number of factors that influence what becomes an election issue. He told me that issues need to touch people, to affect them personally, and to make them unhappy. Voters also need to have a clear channel for action.
Clearly, usage-based billing has touched a nerve with Canadians, and the number of signatures on the Stop The Meter petition reflects that. With its "Vote for the Internet" campaign, OpenMedia has made the channel for action apparent: send a form letter to your local candidates, and report back.
But Pilon also told me that there's another very important factor when it comes to making issues into election issues: personal contact.
There's a reason politicians make telephone calls and pound the pavement knocking on doors. Pilon says e-mail campaigns and political advertising aren't nearly as effective as personal human contact. And for me, that's the piece that seems to be missing from the planned "Vote for the Internet" campaign.
In their official party platform, the Liberals make mention of several digital policy issues. There aren't a ton of details, but the Liberal policy does address things like wholesale internet services, competition for ISPs, and the principle of net neutrality.
Conservative candidate Tony Clement tweeted about the Liberals' digital policies, saying "Liberal Platform 'borrows' key elements of my Investment & Digital Strategies." But so far, no official strategy from the Conservatives or others.
So, will digital policy have a place in this election? We'll see.
In the meantime, I'll be outside, hammering a hand-made "Internet" campaign sign into my lawn.