It is almost cliché now to talk about the transformative power of the internet. For more than 50 years—yes, it has been that long—the ability to connect every person on Earth to a global network has fundamentally changed humanity. However, while the internet has been a mainstay of our society for quite some time now, it appears clear that we have reached a new era on the internet, one in which the laissez-faire approach to regulation and government involvement may be coming to an end.
While it is indisputable that the internet thrived over the last few decades specifically because it operated primarily out of the realm of government, we have reached a point where the internet underpins so much of our lives that it now requires some regulatory guideposts to ensure it remains the safe, stable, and accessible to all. Despite being five decades old, the internet is leaving its teenage years behind, where it was given free rein to embrace curiosity, find its identity, and embrace its creative spirit. While we must ensure this spirit of innovation and freedom is protected, we have to acknowledge that the internet is now fundamental to how our world functions and thus requires some additional structure.
So how do we build the new structure of the internet? The key to ensuring the continued growth of the internet in Canada—to ensure its future is even greater than its past—is to re-embrace the same multi-stakeholder approach that served the web so well in the beginning. We need to make sure the right people are in the room.
The ways in which the internet has changed our lives encompass the list of things you do every day. Whether it’s paying your bills, calling your grandmother, collaborating on that big presentation, or consulting with your doctor, the internet underpins virtually everything we do. And while the pandemic led to a massive acceleration of this trend, the truth is that even if we all went back to our offices tomorrow, the internet would continue to be the operating system of the world.
Conversely, many of the most significant issues facing our society right now owe their origins to the internet, from ransomware crippling our critical infrastructure to misinformation distorting our democracy. In many of these cases, the network effects of the internet, and its open nature, have been exploited by bad or misguided actors in ways that were never foreseen when the first computers were linked together in university labs.
So, we have reached the point where the internet is simultaneously the most indispensable technology of our time and the source of many of our biggest problems. Have we signed ourselves up for the biggest Faustian bargain of all time, or can we find a way out that preserves the original promise of the internet while tamping down the ways in which human nature has distorted its original intent?
We have reached the point where the internet is simultaneously the most indispensable technology of our time and the source of many of our biggest problems.
In Canada, we have begun to see the government attempt to answer this question. In the last 18 months, there has been more movement on digital issues at various levels of government than the previous five years combined. Having your entire society move online overnight has that effect on people, but ultimately this transition was always coming, as we have seen in our data for years. Canadians are increasingly worried about cybersecurity, privacy, misinformation, and a host of other internet-related problems.
A recent CIRA report, titled Canadians Deserve a Better Internet, provided an excellent overview of the range of opinions Canadians have on emerging digital issues. The report found that 84 per cent of Canadians support internet service providers (ISPs) in blocking websites known to host malware and botnets, but at the same time, half of the respondents only wanted this process used as a last resort. It’s clear that malware, ransomware, and other cyber-attacks are a growing concern—increasingly threatening our critical infrastructure—but despite that, it’s clear that many Canadians want to ensure internet security is balanced with maintaining the open nature of the web.
The same survey indicated that 84 per cent of Canadians are concerned that businesses share their personal data with third parties without their consent, and 77 per cent want the Privacy Commissioner to have more power to protect them. In a world where sales of internet-connected devices are skyrocketing, this suggests that Canadians need help balancing the tradeoffs of privacy versus surveillance capitalism that are inherent in these products. They need help.
Finally, the Canadians Deserve a Better Internet report found that there was broad support for a new law requiring social media platforms to remove illegal or harmful content within 24 hours of it being flagged, though they were simultaneously concerned that the law might lead to overreach with legitimate, lawful speech being erroneously flagged.
The common theme in these responses is balance. Canadians have a remarkably nuanced view of these issues that demonstrates just how difficult they are to solve. While social good and democratic values need to be respected, they must be balanced in such a way as to not stifle what made the internet great in the first place. In short, these issues require careful balance, smart solutions, and a range of perspectives to ensure we get it right.
While social good and democratic values need to be respected, they must be balanced in such a way as to not stifle what made the internet great in the first place.
We have seen this play out recently as the federal government tabled several pieces of legislation to tackle a host of digital issues. Covering complex topics like hate speech, support for journalism and funding for Canadian cultural industries, the recent attempts to tackle these complex issues were often criticized not for their intent (most reasonable Canadians agree on the core of the issue) but on the process that ultimately led to the legislation and the perspectives that were considered. The internet is a multi-stakeholder space by definition. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a platform in human history that has been more accessible by such a wide range of our society. The internet is the ultimate democratic force; it removes gatekeepers and elevates ideas. Because of this, internet issues require smart consultation bringing in the expertise, opinions, ideas, and solutions from a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Successfully regulating the internet requires input from business, civil society, politicians, nonprofits, technical operators, charities, artists, and entrepreneurs in a way that acknowledges that the internet’s success is precisely due to its interconnected nature.
It is also important to recognize that there is no such thing as an internet issue that exists in a vacuum. The interconnected nature of the internet means that issues like privacy, cybersecurity, misinformation, cultural policy, and many other all impact each other. As such, a debate over funding Canada’s cultural industry doesn’t just require the input of arts and culture groups but rather a wide range of stakeholders that will be impacted by any regulatory framework that treats one type of content differently than another. Smart consultation must include technical ramifications, business impacts, legal and copyright implications, privacy concerns, and macroeconomic analysis. There is no such thing as a digital issue with only one stakeholder group. Ensuring that we don’t regulate away what made the internet the greatest technological achievement in human history is critical.
Ensuring that we don’t regulate away what made the internet the greatest technological achievement in human history is critical.
Ultimately, thousands of Canadian businesses rely on the internet for their success, and it is incumbent upon all governments to understand how any changes to digital policy will impact how the internet functions. This can’t be done without involving all the relevant stakeholders and engaging them in a way that acknowledges the interconnected nature of digital issues. At CIRA, we are responsible for keeping more than three million .CA domain names functioning with zero downtime for thousands of Canadian businesses, large and small. We take that responsibility very seriously, which is why we regularly solicit input on changes to our policies, technical underpinnings, or marketing positioning to ensure we are considering all the angles.
This may sound cumbersome; how can we ever get things done and make decisions if we have to consult so widely? Yet, the internet has pioneered this style of governance for decades, and it has resulted in one of the most rapidly changing, technologically advanced platforms of all time. Gathering together a diverse group of invested stakeholders works precisely because it focuses on smart engagement that empowers all the relevant experts to contribute to the solution, rather than forcing those left out of the discussion to obstruct, delay, and obfuscate. Getting it right takes time, but it ensures everyone moves forward together.
As we emerge out of the pandemic, we have the opportunity to take the lessons of the past 18 months to build a better, more inclusive, safer and more resilient internet. While the internet acted as a lifeboat for our society, as we build our new normal, many of the things we were forced to do online due to the pandemic may turn out to be the best solutions anyway. We went through a giant forced experiment on the ability of the internet to power our society, and from my perceptive, the internet passed with flying colours.
We went through a giant forced experiment on the ability of the internet to power our society, and from my perspective, the internet passed with flying colours.
While many of us may be itching to return to stores in-person, to browse and shop as we did before, it is likely that the adoption of e-commerce is now table stakes for any small business. Most kids will likely be thrilled to return to their classroom, relishing the friendships, teams, and clubs that make the experience so fulfilling, but we know that online learning works for some and have a model to follow in the future. These lessons reinforce just how critical the internet is to every aspect of our lives and why it is so important to get regulation right.
The internet was born in the 20th century, but to ensure it continues to be an exponential force for good in our society, we must not burden it with 20th-century regulatory thinking. The principles that governed telecom, broadcast, security, or cultural policy in the last century must not be the foundation upon which we build the internet of the future. Only by relying on a smart consultation with the right stakeholders in the room can we build the internet of the future. The internet is not owned by any one group, company, country, or ideology; it is a reflection of both the best and worst of human nature. Only by harnessing the best ideas of perspectives of all internet users can we create a platform that will thrive for another 50 years and beyond.