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Leen D’Haenens

Part Four. Canada in the International Arena

Beyond Infrastructure. Europe, the United States, and Canada on the Information Highway: Where business and culture collide

Leen d’Haenens

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1The Information Highway looks set to become the most pervasive mass medium of all time – a revolution born of and on a par with that ushered in by microcomputers. Beyond the essential technical infrastructure, we must not forget that the vitality of the Information Highway will be directly dependent on the content on offer. This is after all more than a mere matter of “big bucks and cables:” its basic principle must be the international diversity of angles of approach and languages, to the benefit of all users. The emphasis in supply must lie on openness, rather than concentration, and on diversity rather than one single angle of approach. Nor should the Information Highway become hostage to the narrow and often protectionist views G7 countries harbor on the subject. This contribution assesses some of the European, American and Canadian responses to two specific challenges, i.e., infrastructure development (the hardware) on the one hand, and cultural policy (software, content) on the other hand. The United States, Canada, and Europe all have the capability to build their own export-based telecommunications infrastructure. The question of the future role of the government in the expansion of the Information Highway is more problematic: issues include striking the right balance between competition and regulation, Canadian content and European content, the protection of privacy, information, copyright and intellectual property, and ways for Canada, Europe, the United States, and also Japan to be in tune with one another. This article does not offer any ready solution to all these questions, but attempts to provide some understanding of the different policy options.

I BACKGROUND

2A government’s policy with regard to the mass media can be expressed in different degrees of state intervention: freedom of opinion and state control are the two poles between which all policy options are to be found. Traditionally the only choice has been one of three options: free speech; a partially regulated framework, and “the voice of the government” as was seen in the early days of television. In Western democracies policies regarding the print media are based on the “freedom paradigm.” Conversely, the regulatory paradigm still dominates policy as far as the audiovisual media are concerned.

3The Information Highway, which is rapidly becoming known as “cyberspace”, can be considered a revolution in its own right, on a par with the microcomputer revolution which spawned it. It can potentially reach audiences on a scale unprecedented by any other medium. Such large-scale intercultural communication would have far-reaching social and cultural implications, and not everybody stands to gain from it, which promises some forceful opposition along the usual protectionist lines. Still, the Information Highway could become the carrier of choice for existing products and services: news, sporting events, films, drama, video games, videoconferencing, databases, etc. On the other hand, it is a medium suitable for interactive programs and services based on direct participation of the end-user. Almost all non-interactive content that will be delivered to the consumer via the Information Highway already exists and is currently carried by other media. In other words, the Information Highway would offer the consumer more user comfort (thanks to the integrated supply) at a lower price.

4First in the United States and (to a lesser extent) in Europe and Japan, vertical and horizontal alliances are being formed between sectors that used to be clearly separate (each with its own regulatory framework), such as broadcast media, telecommunications and a variety of computer-based business activities. These are the characteristics of an information society in which multimedia, scale amplification and mega-mergers of all kinds are the order of the day (Bouwman, 1994: 2). One direct, global consequence of this blurring of boundaries between formerly distinct media is highly problematic for policy makers: effective mechanisms embracing new information technologies as a whole seem extremely difficult to find. Because of this lack of integrated tools, policy makers are failing to tackle the problem on a macro level, tending instead to look at it as a set of discrete aspects and trying to find meta-level tools they hope will be effective on specific issues such as privacy and the protection of information, universal access, interoperability, standardization, etc. Apart from this central issue – blurred boundaries between formerly well-defined media and the corresponding policy frameworks – we will see that national, supranational, or regional policies all vary according to the geopolitical, cultural-linguistic and, last but not least, business climates and realities in which they are developed and implemented. Trying to understand the differences and similarities in policy options in the regions under scrutiny, we found that some constant features (including mistakes) of past audio-visual media policy shed a great deal of light on those policy options currently being adopted by governments with regard to information and telecommunications.

II AIM AND OBJECTIVES

5First of all, this article intends to compare some major differences and similarities in the approaches adopted by governments and industrial partners throughout Europe, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Japan, in order to implement the information society – with the Information Highway seen as one of its driving forces. A look at the relevant literature (not only learned journals and books, but also government reports and official documentation of supranational organizations such as the European Union) shows that the overall goals are the same, although the methods adopted by the various governments may vary: (1) creating the best possible infrastructure and (2) enhancing the opportunities thus created, improving the overall quality of life and work of all citizens (if at all possible) through a global, significant improvement of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Key issues throughout these regions are societal and political aspects such as the impact on the job situation in the short, medium and long term, intellectual property rights, cross-ownership of media and anti-trust regulation, privacy, censorship, security of electronic information, and universal access. Such issues are crucial. To do them justice we would need to go way beyond the limited scope of this paper.

6Furthermore, the article looks into the Canadian perspective on the Information Highway, since options taken in Canada can offer interesting perspectives concerning the potential path to be followed within the European Union. Apart from the necessary technical infrastructure (networks, terminals, databases), one cannot ignore the fact that the Information Highway’s vitality will be directly dependent on the content on offer: we hardly need to point out that in the past many promising technological achievements went the way of the dodo because they failed to fire the imagination of the buying public. One may therefore contend that the Information Highway’s success will be greatly dependent on the cultural sector as a prime content provider. So, beyond financial and technological issues there is a need for basic principles governing content supply, such as the following, to which the Canadian government subscribes without reserve:

  • Content should reflect the international diversity of perspectives and languages for the benefit of a majority of users. The emphasis in the supply must be on openness instead of concentration; on diversity rather than one single perspective.

  • What is on offer on the Information Highway should not be dictated by the G7 countries’ narrow and often protectionist self-interest. According to the Canadian vision, what is interesting about the Information Highway has more to do with communication than information: this is the basic difference with the American stance, which emphasizes infrastructure and raw data sharing. Canadian government documents indicate that cyberspace should not be a mere hub regulating the flow of data crisscrossing the globe, but that it should be promoted as the meeting point for those various dynamic communities that make up Marshall McLuhan’s global village – a space where creative minds cross-fertilize each other...

III US, EUROPE AND JAPAN: DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES

7Before going any further, we need to briefly assess current trends in US, Europe and Japan, some of which are diverging while others are similar. In addition, we shall look into the changing role of the government and the difficult task of finding the right balance between freedom and regulation with regard to the establishment of standards for new information and telecommunications technologies. Since “the goal is to come to unambiguous, uncontested standards” (Libicki, 1995: 73), given the fact that the economic advantages of compatible standards are threefold – “they may lower supplier costs, increase consumers’willingness-to-pay, or alter the competitive dynamics among suppliers” (Lehr, 1995: 125) – we will take a look at the standardization process in the United States and Europe as well as, to a lesser extent, Japan.

8Table 1 (Longhorn, 1995: 8) illustrates the differences in these three major economies, taking into account the following four criteria: information content, network structures, applications and software, and the “people” element.

Table 1: Information society differences between the US, Japan and Europe

In the US & Japan

In Europe

Information Content

Content is national in character.
Single-language market predominates in most mass communication
arenas.
Large, integrated media companies exist with huge investment power for new
technologies.
Content sellers are mostly selling to a large single market.

National & multicultural in character.
Multilingual
market,
Smaller national media producers can combine forces to approach the size and financial strength of single American media
producers,
Sales of information products are to national and European-wide
markets.

Network Structures

Manufacturers and users have access to basically a single set of standards, which have evolved in place over many years. Nevertheless there are interoperability problems.
Most technologies are “home-grown,” and developed as a result of direct national R&D
programs.
Wide distribution of basic infrastructure exists such as telephone, cable TV, inexpensive high-speed
networks.
This is less true in
Japan.

Great success in mobile telephony (GSM). Multiple standards exist at many levels; many foreign suppliers and purchasers are more familiar with the US standards.
Often competing technologies exist, developed as a result of national R&D initiatives; innovation is widespread.
Distribution of basic service is complicated by national differences in both coverage and regulatory issues.
Modern telephone basic
infrastructures.

Applications & Software

In the US, a large, aggressive software product industry rules in critical basic software areas,
In Japan, the software product industry is weak.

Specialist developers; many excellent niche market applications e.g., in areas such as virtual reality systems, compression technologies, etc.

The “People” Element

Users, especially in business and industry, are technology-orientated and are reaching a level of technology maturity which increases their awareness of information use possibilities.
Information producers, whether entertainment media,
educational material, or simply personal communications, are familiar and at ease with the various technologies and applications.
Awareness of information technology and of the information society is becoming much more widespread.

The historically lower level of penetration of ITC applications in business and industry, in the home and in secondary and advanced education, is now being rapidly remedied,
Relatively late arrival of many information services to Europe means users and producers have not reached the level of their counterparts in the US; yet Europe has some of the largest publishing groups in the world.
Awareness activity is increasing considerably,

9One of the similarities found in every region under scrutiny is the trend towards – quick (US) or gradual (EU) – deregulation, especially as a means to eliminate or reduce monopolies. National, state-owned telecoms corporations no longer determine what is on the global agenda. According to Noam (1994: 7) the dynamics of the telecommunications policy in both Europe and the United States (this is also the case for Japan) go towards deregulation. While in the United States deregulation has expanded functionally from one business sector to the other, deregulation has also spread geographically from the United States to the UK, Japan, and, more gradually, to almost all EU countries. One of the major reasons why it took the European Commission so much longer than the United States to – slowly but surely – encourage this deregulation movement (Commission of the European Communities (CEC), 1987), is the huge differences in geopolitical contexts: while the United States separated network regulation from network operation as early as 1934, with the Communications Act, and established the FCC as its regulatory body, many European countries were still in the process of creating their national telecommunications ministries.

10Given this pro-deregulation context, at least two major tools remain available to the government:

  • The government can act as a provider of sources of capital for infrastructure. This is a thorny issue since all governments are currently faced with very tight budgets. How to finance the necessary telecommunications infrastructure remains highly problematic. Partnerships with the private sector are and will likely remain the most popular solution. The 1997 EU ministers’ Bonn conference was attended by ministers and corporate figures mostly from Europe, but also from the US, Japan and Canada. One thing everybody agreed on was that Europe is still trailing far behind the US and Japan. North-American companies and governments spend twice as much money on information technology as their European counterparts. The partners in Bonn are aiming to bridge this gap as soon as possible.

  • The government as a regulatory body: e.g. FCC, NTIA in US and ETSI in Europe are involved in standard-making. Since it is necessarily based on consensus within cumbersome organizations – which can be time-consuming – and extremely vulnerable to new events – which may be unpredictable – , standard-making has proven an extremely long-winded endeavour.
    Originally, in addition to standard-making, US government interventions at the content level mostly focused on censorship with regard to (1) pornographic or indecent data on the Internet (see Decency Act, 1995) and (2) violence (see Telecommunications Act, 1996). Interesting against this background is the fact that in the US both Acts were struck down in June 1997 by the Supreme Court, which deemed these incompatible with the First Amendment (see also The Economist, 1997: 13). The ruling states that Government should not interfere with Internet content, not even with a view to preventing children being exposed to pornography, violence, or indecent language. In other words, the Supreme Court upheld the arguments of Internet users, civil liberties advocates and the Internet industry, namely that user-empowerment technologies are far more effective and far less restrictive than content regulations. It cannot be mere chance that only four days after the ruling, on July 1, President Clinton introduced a far less controversial, and therefore safer, text establishing a framework for worldwide electronic commerce while favouring limited government intervention and aiming at a harmonization of commercial rules.
    While doing all of those things, the European Commission also looks at European content issues and the protection of Europe’s cultural dimension in connection with copyright and neighbouring rights (CEC, 1995). Thanks to the Bonn Declaration (July 1997) on the protection of data, electronic commerce, and penal liability related to Internet use, for the very first time a unanimous European position has been achieved.
    As for the Canadian government, it adds to this list – whose last item is directly related to the employment issue in local cultural sectors – the sovereignty issue. In a separate section, this paper will expand on the Canadian perspective.

11The US industrial sector can rely on the highly visible support of President Clinton and Vice President Gore when it comes to the extension of the American Information Highway. In September 1993 the National Information Infrastructure (NII) initiative was launched by the Clinton administration: thanks to a partnership with the private sector the development of broadband information infrastructure will be financed. On March 21, 1994, on the occasion of a speech to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Buenos Aires, Vice President Al Gore outlined the five principles according to which the United States National Information Infrastructure is to be built:

  • “First, encourage private investment;

  • Second, promote competition;

  • Third, create a flexible regulatory framework that can keep pace with rapid technological and market changes;

  • Fourth, provide open access to the network for all information providers; and

  • Fifth, ensure universal service” (Gore in Neuman, 1994: 3).

  • 1 In this respect, Johnson (1993: 505) criticizes the lack of consistency in the United States’policy (...)

12There is nothing particularly new about four of these five conditions: business enterprise in the United States is based on classic free market models, and the one distinguishing factor here is the fact that they are being applied to cyberspace. Such principles as “as few regulations and market corrections as possible” and “innovation springs out of competition in the first place” are also applied to the telecommunications issue. Nevertheless, some restrictions apply: broadcasting, cable and other new media technologies are not like many other so-called free market industries and should therefore be subject to some form of regulation. The reasons for this are diverse, but paramount among them are the related issues of scarcity, public interest, and local monopoly1 With respect to the fifth condition, the Telecommunications Act (1996) officially sets out to promote competition and reduce regulation in higher quality services for American telecommunications consumers as well as encourage the rapid deployment of new telecommunications technologies and advanced, quality services, accessible to the largest possible user groups (including rural and high-cost areas, schools, health care service, libraries, etc.) at low rates.

  • 2 Johnson (1995: 510-4) criticizes the current US standards process for information technology: it is (...)

13As regards standard-making processes, the United States and Europe pursued (and to some extent they still do) very different goals with their respective regulator)’policies. The contexts in which these policy measures took shape were also very different: in 1984 the United States could be described as a “fully harmonized fixed network”; the FCC’s2 priority concern around that time became to maximize the use of radio equipment by increasing inter- and intra-system competition. The reasoning behind this shift was the fact that a rapid establishment of technologically advanced and spectrum-efficient equipment could best be achieved by imposing only those few, strictly defined standards that were absolutely necessary; these should be mandated by a federal body or authority. The FCC – which adopts a participatory style – now plays a rather passive role insofar as it performs no long-term technology and/or spectrum planning. The FCC has now been increasingly in favour of a more flexible spectrum allocation policy in order to foster inter- and intra-wireless system competition.

14The European Union also considers that the Information Highway is going to be a crucial tool for the continuation of political and economic integration. As early as 1987 a Green Paper outlined Europe’s priority concerns in a variety of fields such as distance learning, health care, other services for public welfare, advanced services and networks in less favoured regions. Co-ordination regarding the future development of telecommunications throughout the European Union was set to be carried out by means of common infrastructure projects on the one hand, and pre-competitive R&D on the other hand, through programs such as RACE, ESPRIT, STAR, etc. Network development is considered crucial: ISDN, digital mobile communications and the development of future broadband communications, as well as a more efficient, comprehensive, and long-term European spectrum management process. Since equal access for all market participants is seen as another priority, the creation of a compatible European Union-wide market for terminals and equipment as well as the establishment of open and interoperable standards are considered a requirement (DAVIC, DCC in the TEN Telecoms Program are EC funded projects working on standards for interconnectivity).

15The White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness and Employment (1993) first emphasized the significance of the information society for Europe’s future. A High Level Group of experts, chaired by Commissioner Martin Bangemann, submitted its report to the European Council in Corfu (June 1994). The report specified that financing information infrastructure was a task best left to the private sector. The role of government should be that of a catalyst only. In 1994, the Commission presented Europe’s Way to the Information Society. An Action Plan (1994), which is the general framework within which initiatives centering on the information society are assembled for 1994 and 1995. The four main lines of action include: (1) liberalization of infrastructure; (2) encouragement of initiatives in the field of trans-European networks, services, applications and content; (3) a High Level Group of experts to be set up to look into social and cultural aspects characterizing the development of the information society; (4) launching information society awareness actions. In July 1996, the European Commission published a communication (The Information Society: From Corfu to Dublin. The New Emerging Priorities) identifying four priorities of equal importance (see also Verhulst & Goldberg, 1998): (1) improving the business environment; (2) investing in the future and its knowledge-based society; (3) putting people at the center; (4) meeting the global challenge.

  • 3 Some figures: the largest national market in Europe is Germany, with just 11 million PCs (compared (...)
  • 4 “In March 1990, 61.8% of the members were manufacturers, 12.7% public network operators, 12.7% admi (...)

16One can always dream... The European market remains sharply different from that of the United States: Europe has traditionally been a fragmented market, without the benefits of economies of scale3 Consequently, users had to buy expensive terminal equipment and until recently competition was almost non-existent for both fixed and mobile-communications services. This is why since 1984, EU regulatory policies have been geared towards two goals: (1) developing pan-European communications standards (leading to the establishment of ETSI4 and (2) the introduction of competition for the provision of services. Contrary to the United States and the United Kingdom, where a clearly different pro-competition attitude was adopted earlier (in favour of free market access and/or spectrum auctioning, among other things), most regulators in continental Europe favoured “limited” competition (Paetsch, 1993: 348).

  • 5 “America is the computer heartland, and the Information Highway cannot undo that fact. Europe has i (...)

17One major drawback in Europe’s information and telecommunications situation is certainly its so-called software debacle5 Europe does not produce nearly enough mainstream software applications. With SAP – the market leader in applications software for business computer networks – a happy exception, Europe buys nearly as much software as America, but produces only a fifth as much (The Economist, 1994: 71). In fact, things are even worse: including in its own markets, European companies account for less than a third of sales, including in their own markets, while Americans software producers control over 60% of the European market. “As a result, Europe’s trade deficit in packaged software is running at $18 billion a year. And things are getting worse: American firms now account for 19 of the top 30 money-makers in Europe, up from nine just five years ago (...)” (The Economist, 1994: 71). Among Europe’s major difficulties are certainly its scattered markets, its language diversity, its different legal systems, cultures and currencies, not to mention a long tradition of xenophobia...

18In short, Europe’s problem is basically a content problem. There is a marked similarity with Europe’s audio-visual media policy, which still focuses far too much on hardware development and distribution. There is a clear and incomprehensible disregard for the production of software (content). On balance, Europe’s audio-visual media policy is rather inadequate, and this has a decidedly negative impact on European culture and the economic health of the European audio-visual sector. Consumers and program makers are being overlooked in favour of financial interest groups. The Television without Frontiers directive (1989) provides for the free flow of audio-visual products. However, this free flow is not backed by any financially balanced policy initiative. While the MEDIA I & II programs provide a unique counterweight to the glut of one-sided hardware development and distribution initiatives, remedying the current imbalance between production and distribution seems all but impossible... Nevertheless, there is hope, since the emphasis has been gradually shifting from “information technology” towards “information content.” INF02000 has funded 80 content projects, 29 of which have reached the implementation stage. Thirteen of these are cultural heritage projects, such as CHAMPOLLION, NAVEGAR, or Great Composers (Echo Facts for Users, 1998: 2). More and more funds are now being made available for on-going or planned European Commission R&D programs as part of the Fifth Framework Program, whose (in)direct purpose is getting Europe’s cultural heritage on-line (ESPRIT, ACTS, TAP).

19Other countries such as Japan view the Information Highway as a radical solution to the growing problems of urbanization and pollution. The Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation has already announced that by the year 2015 all school, homes and offices will be wired up and interconnected through optical fiber lines. In order to prepare this large-scale project the Japanese Ministry of Post and Telecommunications initiated a three-year project (worth US$50 million) in the spring of 1994 in a bid to assess the feasibility of integrated telecommunications and broadcasting using fiber optics. Three hundred homes and offices are involved in the project: video-on-demand, high-definition television, videoconferencing, teleshopping and telemedicine are the applications to be evaluated. Finally the Japanese committee of telecoms experts in charge of the project considers the Information Highway as a potential means to disseminate Japanese culture world-wide. In this respect-the question of content and sovereignty-the Canadian experience may prove highly interesting...

IV CANADA’S PERSPECTIVE ON THE INFORMATION HIGHWAY: INFUSING SOME SOUL INTO THE NETWORK

  • 6 “Despite the strong telecommunications base, Internet bandwidth and development of the commercial I (...)
  • 7 The majority of Canadians have access to the Internet thanks to CA*net. The largest user communitie (...)
  • 8 UBI stands for Universality, Bidirectionality, Interactivity. A consortium of seven companies spent (...)

20In an attempt to assess the efficiency of Canada’s governmental policy on the matter, we will now assess the answers given by the Canadian government to two specific challenges: the technical evolution (the infrastructure, the hardware) on the one hand, and the cultural policy (the software, the content) on the other hand. With regard to infrastructure, thanks to active government support, Canada can rely on an extraordinarily high telecompetitivity index (Sirois & Forget, 1995). Since the invention of telephony (in 1876), Canada has always considered the development of communications networks (always in the hands or under control of Canadians) as a priority. Other examples are the Trans-Canadian telephone networks established in 1932, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (public broadcasting service), created in 1936, the transcontinental microwave networks built at the end of the nineteen-fifties, the launching of the first communication satellite in 1972, the move into wireless telephony at the end of the Eighties and the installation of optical fiber lines from coast to coast in recent years. And now Canadians are setting up freenets – the community initiatives that provide local citizens with Internet access at attractive rates. Networks for distance learning are operational in almost every province. SchoolNet – a joint initiative between governments (federal and provincial), actors in education (teachers, universities, community colleges and schools) and industry partners – is intended to establish an electronic link between all 16,000 Canadian schools. The Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education (CANARIE), a relatively slow speed6 national network that needs upgrading, provides the funding needed to optimize CA *net7 the Canadian component of the Internet. At the same time in Labrador and Newfoundland, a lot of efforts are being made to promote a more effective and efficient use of advanced information technology by local small and medium-sized companies. In the fall of 1995 a home communication service was installed in Québec (UBI)8 providing interactive services such as telebanking, teleshopping, interactive mail, video-on-demand and government services on the television screen (instead of a computer screen) by means of an advanced remote control (instead of a keyboard). These examples show that Canada is able to build an export-oriented infrastructure, that can be considered an efficient and competitive approach in view of further developments on the Information Highway.

  • 9 The low profile currently being kept by the government with regard to the development of a global p (...)

21More problematic is the question of the future role of the government with regard to the development of the Information Highway. Indeed, almost everywhere (things are no different in Canada) governments have been struggling to curtail huge deficits and since January 1, 1998, in almost all EU countries, telecommunications monopolies have been pared down or altogether eliminated. In other words, governments everywhere can no longer play the key role they used to revel in: they now must rely a lot more on the private sector9.

  • 10 Foreign (read mainly American) films make up about 96% of the total screen time; 70% of the works a (...)

22The current pro-competition attitude vis-à-vis the telecommunications industry contrasts sharply with the traditionally protective reflexes concerning the production and distribution of all kinds of software products. The Canadian experience in this field is exceedingly interesting: its officially bilingual cultural market is undoubtedly one of the world’s most open10 – and therefore one of the most vulnerable – markets to US influence. That is why the Canadian government has long been active in the promotion of Canadian content through electronic mass media and the film industry (Broadcasting Acts, 1968 & 1991). Institutions such as the National Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation were created as part of this policy. Complementary to this is the financial support provided by the government through Telefilm Canada and fiscal compensations for investment in films shot in Canada. Moreover, legislation exists which guarantees some Canadian content on the television screens. This policy remains viable primarily through the granting and/or extension of TV and radio broadcasting licenses. In practice the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission) requires that 60% of the programs transmitted on public service channels (CBC/RadioCanada) be of Canadian origin (see CRTC, 1984; Taras, 1991). Private stations are allowed to reduce this percentage by 10% in prime-time (between 6 p.m. and midnight). Canadian content rules also apply in principle to pay- and thematic channels. Nevertheless, Much Music (Canada’s answer to MTV) and the Sports Network, two Canadian-owned, special-interest channels available on cable, respectively broadcast a mere 10% and 18% of Canadian content (Raboy, 1990).

23In accordance with its chosen cultural policy, it is the Canadian government’s objective – as indicated by government documents dealing with this issue – not to accept any expression of cultural hegemony or cultural monopoly on the Information Highway. Until now, a whole variety of governmental measures – financial compensations in film production and quota in radio and television – have contributed to the protection of Canada’s cultural identity. These policy options, together with active support of local creative production, proved quite effective. The arrival of the Information Highway, however, is considered a potential threat. An initial, probably impulsive response could then be to clutch at the protective measures taken in the audio-visual sector and amplify them. Precisely because of the open character of the Information Highway (homepages and web sites can be designed to suit everyone’s needs and tastes), the question remains whether the options chosen by the Canadian government to protect Canadian culture (mostly in the field of radio and TV) will prove applicable and effective with regard to the most recent challenge: the Information Highway...

24Moreover, Canada’s weaknesses being mostly geography and demography, they are being given special attention by the government in its attempts to reverse the already pervasive Americanization of Canadian cultural products. But what is there to be done about (1) the sheer size of its territory and the poor accessibility of remote communities in the Northern Territories, as well as (2) the low population density – less than 30 million inhabitants heavily concentrated on a narrow strip of land along the border with the United States (whose population totals some 250 million people)? Precisely because of this specific context, the Canadian government does not feel comfortable with policy regimes and options that are being invented elsewhere (read the United States), in utterly different geopolitical contexts. This is the reason why the Canadian government has undertaken to come up with policy options of its own, an approach that still favours openness and a pro-competition regime, but based on the two following tenets:

  1. Canadian end-users must be given the possibility to express their own identity in order to be able to “recognize themselves,” as it were, on the Information Highway.

  2. Canadians must be actively involved in the development of the Information Highway: not only as consumers, but as active creators, providers of services and products, and carriers of content.

25Sirois & Forget (1995: 5) spell it out as follows:

The goal is not to keep American-generated content out of Canada but to ensure that the wonders of technology are effectively used to expand our horizons, making the full spectrum of human interest, outlooks and creativity accessible to all, with as little bias as possible, in an open environment-while at the same time creating wealth and prosperity for Canadians. There should be room for the expression of Canadian talent and the exercise of Canadian entrepreneurship not just in Canada but in the United States and elsewhere. The question is: paying due attention to economic realities and the relatively small size of Canada and its proximity to the United States, how can such an open environment be fostered?

26In Canada, the body in charge of assessing the threats and promises of the Information Highway is the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) (which disbanded in September 1997 after submitting its final report, Preparing Canada for a Digital World; during its four years of existence, it came up with a wealth of recommendations and advice on how to carry forward Canada’s policy agenda for the Information Highway). It comprised 29 experts from industry (telephony, telecommunications, data traffic, cable distribution), the cultural sector, academia and consumers associations. This committee, whose objective it was to advise the government, was established in April 1994. In order to enlarge the knowledge base of the advisory council, it was augmented later on with another 26 Canadian experts. Priority is given to the use of the Canadian component of the Information Highway, with a view to supporting local cultural and other content-related products and services. The IHAC considers that the goal must be the development of an information network of the highest possible quality at the lowest possible rates, including access for all Canadians to services that have to do with employment, education, investments, leisure, health care and overall improvement of the standards of living. IHAC’s activities are based on the three following strategic principles:

    • 11 It is believed that the cultural potential of the Information Highway will lead to the creation of (...)

    creating jobs11 by means of innovation and investments in Canada;

  1. strengthening Canadian sovereignty and cultural identity;

  2. ensuring universal access at an affordable price.

27These principles are to be translated into policy options based on the five following

  1. development of a network linked to and interoperable with other networks;

  2. collaboration between government and private sector;

  3. competition in the fields of possibilities, products and services;

  4. privacy and network protection;

  5. permanent education (lifelong learning) as a key principle for Canada's information superhighway.

  • 12 Those issues are dealt with in great depth in the research reports of the Canadian Advisory Council (...)

28The IHAC also paid attention to the government as a model user. The following paragraphs describe a number of highly relevant issues12 in the opinion of the expert committee; the goal is to foster the development of the Information Highway and Canada's position on the matter. Correct answers need to be found to the following questions:

  1. What about balance between competition and regulation?

  2. What about Canadian content on the Information Highway?

4.1 Competition and Regulation; A Difficult Balance

29The Canadian advisory council believes that competition, rather than regulation, can and should be the driving force behind the development of the Information Highway, together with new information and communications services. Nevertheless the advisory council unanimously recognizes the need for a national regulatory body. Again according to this advisory council, a new role for the regulator should be urgently thought of: should it be an enforcer or an arbitrator? Central suppliers of network infrastructure, i.e., telecommunications and cable television industries, were regulated since their very beginnings. Fast technological growth and the free trade context naturally led to deregulation and a greater dependency upon market principles. What about the future? The evolution towards an open, more competitive system, seen by the Canadian government as the answer to ever-increasing pressure from the private sector, took place gradually.

  • 13 As an answer to the Advisory Council, the government reviewed the requirements regarding Canadian o (...)

30The CRTC’s decision, made in the autumn of 1994, in accordance with the recommendations of the advisory council, to increase13 the competition level within the telecommunications market, and the call for public hearings from the government with regard to the issue of convergence between the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors are welcome responses to the recommendations of the advisory council. They clearly show that the Canadian government is taking the initiative in order to create the most favourable conditions for the establishment of new information and communication services, ensuring that the necessary infrastructure is in place.

4.2 Canadian Content

31The advisory council believes that government policy must aim to enhance the Canadian identity while promoting the development of the Information Highway. The council thinks that any recommendation made with respect to the Information Highway should be based on the provisions of the 1968 and 1991 Broadcasting Acts, especially since the Canadian content issue is intimately related to employment matters. The advisory council therefore recommends that exports of Canadian television programs and film productions should be facilitated in the future. Harmonization among national and provincial support funds is therefore necessary. The council makes it clear that the principle of freedom of speech as enshrined in the Canadian Constitution must not be undermined on the Information Highway.

32Similarly to what has been happening in the other regions under scrutiny, a Canadian Working Group on Access and Social Impacts is examining ways to reformulate Canadian legislation with regard to offensive content transmitted through new information technologies. Since one can already find plenty of pornographic, obscene and hateful material in cyberspace (including Internet newsgroups), and given the fact that such content is easier to disseminate in digital format and therefore difficult to control, the working group will provide the Canadian legislator with recommendations for amending parts of applicable legislation, so as to more efficiently control children’s access to such content.

V CONCLUSION

33Converging of technologies are blurring the boundaries between telecommunications, broadcasting, computing and data information services. Such services as we now know them will be things of the past. This article showed among other things that governments are faced with confusing and sometimes downright chaotic situations. It all boils down to fighting vertical and horizontal alliances of content and service providers and manufacturers. National and supranational governing bodies are scrambling – rather ineffectually – to regain some control over the essentially horizontal, cross-national connecting abilities of the Information Highway and other advanced telecommunications systems. It must be clear, however, that governments still have a role to play: above all they must strive to put to right the infrastructure situation, which is currently characterized by the emergence of mega-mergers among suppliers. Furthermore, governments must ensure that power, currently in the hands of a few, is better distributed among larger groups of actors. Otherwise the only force in operation will be the market, which means that too many people may be left behind once and for all.

34We saw that there is at least one government that is determined to do something about it: the Canadian government is taking steps to prevent the Information Highway from becoming a vehicle for cultural homogenization or an outlet for monopolies. Canadian policy makers want to make sure that their opinions on content issues are heard on the international scene, which means that Canadians may become more actively involved in the global co-ordination of the Information Highway. A lot of other regions, including the European Union, have also been looking for an approach which is more strategic and user-friendly. And most of them agree that the United States is never more aggressive in international matters than when it sees in them a means to boost economy...

35Regardless of future policy options, there is a clear need for a complete change of paradigm concerning the regulation of infrastructure use and the production and selection of content on the Information Highway. The unavoidable international dimension of this global competition game must be reflected in policy measures. Advancing globalization will also prove useful in the long run inasmuch as it should help eliminate many of the multiple variants of existing standards. Based upon a realistic assessment of the needs of the global marketplace, it must be clear that truly international standards become increasingly necessary. Moreover, different user groups could play a vital and constructive role in the establishment of truly useful standards. Therefore, not only major user groups (multinationals or public administrations) – which sit already at the various negotiating tables – but also professional or trade associations and individuals using microcomputers should have their say, since they “share common expectations about standardization”. (Ferné, 1995: 457) A number of national governments and supranational bodies such as the European Union are determined not to let government regulations or isolation from the rest of the world become priority criteria in the development of the Information Highway: openness and interoperability remain crucial.

36What really matters is to use technology to recognize and stimulate creative activities, so that anybody who wishes to produce and distribute new products and services (from electrical cars to electronic music) may do so, to make institutions more flexible, to eliminate market boundaries and expand horizons, and perhaps ultimately to help draw humankind together.

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Notes

1 In this respect, Johnson (1993: 505) criticizes the lack of consistency in the United States’policy regimes vis-à-vis the communications providers, thus limiting competition and access to services: “Federal, state, and local governments each play different roles in regulating service providers. Regulation has focused on four different kinds of information or transmission media:
• The press are not regulated because of the First Amendment.
• Telephone companies or Local Exchange Carriers (LECs) are regulated by the States. Congress allowed telephone service to be operated by a monopoly in return for stringent government oversight of rates and regulation of access.
• Cable television companies are regulated by the Federal government, local communities, and sometimes at State level.
• Wireless communications providers are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through the frequency licensing process.” (Italics are ours.)

2 Johnson (1995: 510-4) criticizes the current US standards process for information technology: it is outdated and non-responsive to users; rural America is not served as cost-effectively as it should be; new standards are needed to transmit from the analogue based infrastructure to the Nil’s broadband digital infrastructure; and the United States lacks a platform where discussions on the development of the NII can be addressed.

3 Some figures: the largest national market in Europe is Germany, with just 11 million PCs (compared to a domestic market of 57 million PCs in the United States). (The Economist, 1994: 71). Absence or presence of economies of scale is precisely what makes the difference between the impact of market segmentation in Europe and the United States. In Europe, market segmentation and lack of interoperable standards proved to be disadvantageous (higher prices for end-users), while in the United States, lack of mandatory standards and uncontrolled dissemination of non-standard equipment led to an advantageous situation.

4 “In March 1990, 61.8% of the members were manufacturers, 12.7% public network operators, 12.7% administrations, 10% users and public service providers, and 2.8% research bodies. These figures testify to the fundamental change in the European standardization process, which for the first time, incorporates manufacturers and users.” (Paetsch, 1993: 270-2)

5 “America is the computer heartland, and the Information Highway cannot undo that fact. Europe has its scattered technology parks, but it has no Silicon Valley (...)”. (The Economist, 1994: 71).

6 “Despite the strong telecommunications base, Internet bandwidth and development of the commercial Internet in Canada lagged significantly behind the United States in the early 1990s.” (Cronin, 1996: 105) This go-slow approach-however costly for the business community-was a conscious choice on the part of Canadian policy makers: “In the minds of some policy planners, however, the economic benefits of open competition do not outweigh the claims of Canadian culture and national identity.” (Cronin, 1996: 107)

7 The majority of Canadians have access to the Internet thanks to CA*net. The largest user communities are concentrated in universities, community colleges, government, industrial groups, companies and also a growing number of primary schools (Shade, 1994).

8 UBI stands for Universality, Bidirectionality, Interactivity. A consortium of seven companies spent Cdn$750 million to develop UBI. Phase I began in the autumn of 1995: i.e. 34,000 families in the Saguenay region will get the necessary equipment installed in their homes. The companies in the consortium are: Vidéotron (20% participation), Hydro-Québec (20%), Canada Post Corporation (19%), Loto-Québec (11%), Videoway Communications (10%), National Bank of Canada (10%) and The Hearst Corporation (10%) (Montreal Business Magazine, 1994).

9 The low profile currently being kept by the government with regard to the development of a global policy option contrasts sharply with the heavy government participation in the establishment of earlier infrastructure. Examples are numerous: railroads, air traffic control, the French Minitel (a precursor of the Information Highway) all resulted from government initiatives and direct government support.

10 Foreign (read mainly American) films make up about 96% of the total screen time; 70% of the works aired on radio are foreign and foreign titles represent 75% of all sound recording.

11 It is believed that the cultural potential of the Information Highway will lead to the creation of more jobs. Only in Canada the cultural and arts sector is worth Cdn$24 billion, or 4% of GDP, representing 700,000 direct and indirect jobs. The development of the knowledge-based information network is expected to breed still unknown creative possibilities and result in a tenfold enhancement of economic activity. In order to clarify this complex matter, the OECD was asked to write a report on (1) the content of the Information Highway, (2) the productivity of services to be supplied and, last but not least, (3) job perspectives.

12 Those issues are dealt with in great depth in the research reports of the Canadian Advisory Council (in Industry Canada, 1994a; Industry Canada 1994b; Information Highway Advisory Council, 1994).

13 As an answer to the Advisory Council, the government reviewed the requirements regarding Canadian ownership and control over communications networks. The Council’s proposal was favourable to a 20% to 33.3% increase in foreign capital in broadcasting companies, the obvious goal being to attract more foreign capital. By this decision, ownership regulations in both broadcasting and telecommunications are harmonized.

Auteur

Associate professor at the Department of Communication, University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands. E-mail: l.dhaenens@maw.kun.nl

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