By Jason Menard
On-line public pressure may not only serve to pull the plug on a move to cap Internet usage in the Great White North; it may, in addition to serving as a cyber-feather in our collective caps for democracy, show how we can get people involved in the political process in the future.
Lazy, apathetic, disinterested voters have been both the bane and the boon of politicians for years – a bane to those interested in making change; a boon to those who are content with pushing their agendas through parliament before the masses catch on – but a recent kerfuffle in Canada has shown that there’s something that can be the great equalizer.
While political issues may get a rise out of people – they haven’t been successful in translating that rise into literally getting off our collective butts. However, by using the Internet, on-line petitions, and social media distribution to deliver the issue right onto Canadians’ laps, we can put democracy in motion – even if the voters themselves aren’t.
The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission’s recent decision to allow Bell Canada to pass usage-based billing onto both wholesale and retail customers struck a nerve – and that nerve was conveniently attached to the finger that controls Canadians’ computer mice!
Bell is one of Canada’s largest ISPs. The long and the short of this meant that smaller, independent ISPs who rent space from Bell would have had to cap the services they offer. That would mean more stringent download restrictions and added fees for exceeding a set threshold – 25 GB per month.
Not coincidentally, Netflix just crossed the Canadian border. Add to that the fact that Bell and Rogers (Canada’s other major Internet provider) also have significant television holdings, and it all added up to something that didn’t sit right with Canucks. But what to do?
After all, Canadians aren’t exactly the rioting in the streets type. We’ve put up with higher cell phone rates and expensive Internet and television packages (especially in relation to our neighbours south of the 49th) with a few grumbles, but little action.
This proposed Internet cap was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After all, we Canucks love our Internet. Statistics Canada survey results show that 80 per cent of Canadians aged 16 or older used the Internet in 2009 – up from 73 per cent in 2007. Of those who access the Internet from home, 92 per cent did so with a high-speed connection.
OpenMedia.ca, which bills itself as a citizen engagement-based accessible media advocacy group, started a petition on Oct. 1, 2010 to overturn this decision. They remain active both on Facebook and Twitter, and their message has spread throughout the very bandwidth whose access it’s trying to protect. On Jan. 13, 2011, an OpenMedia.ca release stated that Act.ly said that Twitter users alone have shared information to 574,979 people. At the time, OpenMedia estimated that a similar number of Canadians were reached through Facebook.
As of Feb. 3, 2011, over 357,000 Canadians had signed the petition and, according to act.ly, the petition had a reach of 2,976,335 Twitter users. The major federal political parties have expressed their opposition to the move, with the Prime Minister effectively threatening to overturn the ruling if the CRTC fails to do so itself. Safe to say this version of Internet democracy has worked.
Contrast that with the fact that voter turnout has been declining over the past couple of decades in the Great White North. Our collective apathy is at its lowest point. In October 2008, only 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in the federal election. It’s commonly said that federal politics is a spectator sport in Canada – and that’s becoming more literal every day.
Provincial and municipal voter turnouts are even worse. Despite elections officials doing everything they can to make voting more accessible to all — advance polling, services to drive you to and from the balloting station, and even setting up voting stations in malls – our numbers are decreasing.
However, savvy politicians have realized that if the voters won’t come to you, maybe you need to go to the voter. In London, ON, our new mayor defeated the incumbent in November. Part of his strategy was an aggressive social media campaign. Not only did it allow him and his campaign team to interact with interested voters, it also allowed prospective voters to interact with each other – and some of those on the fence may have been swayed.
I’ve mediated town hall meetings in the past and, while they have their place, you usually only get the fringe attending: the people with an agenda, the people who are political zealots, and – of course – those who can’t turn down a free coffee or snack. The same is true for newspaper op-ed pages and letters – rarely is Joe or Jill Average represented.
Using the Internet, especially Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, allows you to expose your political message to a wide variety of people. There are no barriers, there is no intimidation (after all, not everyone’s comfortable asking questions before a crowd), and – best of all – you can get involved with the political process from the comfort of your own home (I was going to say ‘in your underwear,’ but that’s not exactly a new or foreign concept in the ol’ political game!).
As a politician, you want your electorate to know you. Ideally, we want our voters to know the issues, know the candidates’ respective stances, and form an opinion based upon that. Unfortunately, too many people vote on name recognition, hearsay, or by whatever the newspaper says.
The OpenMedia.ca campaign has shown that people can be motivated to act when it’s made easy for them. This wasn’t just about signing a petition – people actually read about the issue and then passed it along to their friends. As a politician, those friend-to-friend referrals are invaluable because they carry extra weight.
The old adage states that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Over the years, we’ve not only led that horse to water – we’ve held its head under the water, and yet still that horse won’t drink.
Maybe the issue isn’t with what they’re drinking – Canadians are thirsty for politics – but it’s how they get their beverage of choice. Instead of making people go to the corner store, offering them home delivery may work. The politicians who figure that out may create a relationship, or an attachment, that gets their voters to the ballot box more regularly.