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ISSN 1483-9288
SLA WCC

Wired West: Volume 14, no. 1

Internet Governance Forum: Is the Internet Sustainable in your Community?

By Philip Wolfart

On Wednesday, November 10, 2010, I attended the Internet Governance Forum.  This forum was  hosted by the Canadian Internet Regulation Authority (CIRA) based in Ottawa, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), based here in Winnipeg. 

I was pleased to have been invited to this event, along with representatives from a variety of sectors as follows: government of Manitoba;  climate change advocacy groups; aboriginal banking; marketing consultants; information management (me); farming; consulting.  Although I found myself wearing several hats, I was ostensibly invited to represent the perspective of Special Libraries.  The forum in essence was an intense, but, in my opinion, fulfilling beginning of a discussion about the future, and visions of that future, of internet infrastructure across Canada.

By way of introduction, each participant was asked to comment on the question, “what should / could the future of the internet in Canada be like”.  Not surprisingly some common themes began to emerge: universal access, security, environmental sustainability.  I for my part, had thought of the geographical and socio-economic impacts.    I hope to develop these thoughts more fully elsewhere, but I did comment that while many were making comparisons to previous massive changes to the country’s infrastructure, I’d argue that the implications for this one are quite different (and in many cases unknowable) .  We are unlikely to see the same degree of population movements that we have seen with canals/ railroads, roads, and even telephone. The implications may be more socio-economic, and we have a rare opportunity to create more sustainable communities without large geographical movements of peoples.  I further echoed what other participants said about internet service in Canada,  that it needs to be an ongoing commitment.  I think I heard a consensus that there needs to be ongoing, direct support from governments at all levels, and that it needs to be treated as a utility like electricity, heat, water.  I note that there was some debate about how internet access ranked, but it became clear in the discussions, that it remain a top priority for ongoing development of all communities.
CIRA representative Mark Bueller gave a brief introduction to the ideas behind this forum, and reminded participants that we are entering a critical period for the global internet; under the currently existing protocol for IP addresses (IP v. 4) we are rapidly running out of unique  IP addresses, and need to brace ourselves for the roll out of IP v.6.  This was the first time I hear of this, but IT teams of large institutions have been working on this, we were told, for a while, and it has been the mandate of organizations like CIRA to coordinate / manage the information about this.  Naturally this will have implications for the University, and the Library.

The IISD then presented very briefly on their background paper that had been shared with the participants a day before the forum.  Not surprisingly, it sought to identify and raise discussion about economic opportunities, key issues that might benefit from public policy development; how do internet public policy decisions affect Canada’s capacity to respond, its strengths and weakness?

The bulk of the discussion can best be described as brainstorming, first as individuals, and second as groups.  As individuals we were asked to present 4 of 5 issues related to the future impact of infrastructure; as a group we were organized into broad categories, about 4 or 5 in the end.  The discussion that ensued was meant to be around 4 main questions:

  • What is the current status?
  • What are the barriers to this?
  • Who needs to act, and
  • Who are the stakeholders?

My group was tasked to address concerns related to internet access.  In response to the aforementioned questions, the status of internet access was generally thought to be poor.   For obvious reasons this has huge implications for Special Libraries (as well as any Library, for that matter).  One of the most obvious barriers to adequate internet access is cost.  We were told that to get everyone in Canada up to a reasonable level of internet access would cost between $40 and $60 per person per month.  How we could address this was only very briefly discussed, and certainly not resolved.

In our discussion I learned that while most, if not all schools in Manitoba have reasonable access to the internet and the technology and infrastructure is in place to provide access to neighbouring communities, especially in off-peak hours, it is legislation that prevents schools from making that access available.  I further reminded my colleagues, from the point of view of information providers, that a serious barrier to access is the current uncertainty of existing copyright legislation.  To overcome this barrier, we need clarity in the legislation, currently before the house as bill c-32, and of course education about how and when we can use materials gathered on the internet.  So, most barriers we identified seemed to be essentially legislative, and limited by our imagination.  Since this meeting was held, Industry Minister Tony Clement has announced plans to begin auctioning off bandwidth that is anticipated to be freed up as TV signals move to other frequencies by late 2012 (Industry Canada Press Release, November 22, 2010).

The nature of these barriers provided a glimmer of optimism and reminded members to return to their constituents, and to keep pressure on MPs and MLAs.  We did not, in the short time provided, identify an exhaustive list of stakeholders, but there was, I think, overwhelming consensus that while the expectation is that government at all levels take on a strong leadership role, it is up to communities to remind them what it is they want.  The meeting ended on an optimistic note, but a clear sense that the job was far from complete.  Similar meetings were held throughout the ensuing week in other parts of the country in preparation for a national forum, scheduled for February 2011.  The discussion is now ongoing at various levels, and I’d encourage Special Librarians in Canada, especially, to follow this.  The United Nations, and no doubt other NGOs have weighed in, and just today, in the United States, a Republican politician has expressed her concern over that organizations: “It has become increasingly clear that international governmental organizations, such as the United Nations, have aspirations to become the epicenter of Internet governance. And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure this never happens,” Bono Mack, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade said in a statement. (cited in Goldstein, 2011), last accessed January 27, 2011).

This is a short summary of the beginnings of what are some very interesting discussions that I think have a lot to bear on Librarians of all kinds in Canada.  In the meantime, I am following CIRA and IISD through all available media, and trying to keep track of other events and announcements related to this issue in the upcoming months.

I am reminded here, to reread Castell, M. (2001) Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society.  This is now 10 years on, and deserves a revisit.   A slightly more current discussion, although still international in scope is Jonathan Zittrain’s  The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it.

Philip Wolfart is SLA-WCC Manitoba Director and Reference Librarian at the University of Manitoba.

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