The prospective merger of Canada’s two internet and cellular provider giants is one of those sea change moments in Canadian history. The disturbing thing is that, after the initial news about the deal, no one has been talking about it.
Ultimately, the fate of the takeover is in the hands of the Federal government, to determine if the merger is fair and equitable.
The merger is being justified with terms like “mobile virtual network operators” or MVNOs having a “leg up”, and “open door” a “new day” in the industry. With a sole major operator in the cellular and data transmission field, the federal government can require MVNOs to be able to lease that communications real estate. This conceit is being spread like good old fashioned butter (not this new-fangled “buttergate” butter) over our instinctive concerns about plutocratic communications controls, with a lovely cinnamon-sugar sprinkling of “federal government oversight” which is designed to make us breathe a sigh of relief. Not to worry, when only one private interest controls our most integral communications networks, the government will be there to make sure we little folks are all well-served.
Canada is a beautiful, great country and I respect its federalism to a great degree. It broadly and in specific instances can move with effectiveness and great consideration. However, it’s time we noticed some of the tropes which are used to wield or mask that federal authority, and think about the consequences of that authority’s use for each of us as digital citizens increasingly dependent upon virtual means to earn our daily bread (and butter).
Trope: Federal Government will mark out a field of ‘fair competition’ for us. Let’s not forget that the Federal Government changes when voters decide there’s time for a change. What has traditionally started out in the hands of one administration invariably turns to another… and at that point, the boundaries, scope of fair play and costs for this field of ‘fair competition change’.
Trope: Centralism in terms of industry, service delivery or product is a convenient means of assuring fairness and equitable service to all. Any Canadian west of Thunder Bay may have a few issues about this conceit, and any Canadian who earned a living with a net or a seafood trap east of Montreal may have a few issues about this as well. Any Canadian who is still waiting for bureaucracy to provide them with clean water, better hospitals or health care, answers as to missing people, timely responses to insurance claims or all season roads or usable airfields may also have a few issues about this. (I’m not even going to mention the ‘vaccine’ word here). By centralizing industry and leaving it either directly in provincial/federal control or overseen by a changeable government and its ever-increasing web of bureaucracies, the reality of access to services can be greatly impeded.
Trope: Federal Government can effectively oversee a private corporation as it manages necessary public infrastructure. This puts an end to the concept of a private enterprise, and essentially makes whichever private corporation that becomes ‘overseen’ in these methods an uneasy puppet of the Federal Government and its zeitgeist. This ‘arm’s length’ dealing – foisting the construction and maintenance of infrastructure onto private companies – is a sign of a government strangled by bureaucratic tradition and convolution. If a government should be overseeing an industry, it stands to reason that a government should be responsible for making it. Oversight means that a private company puts in the footwork and sweat equity so that the government can move in, or move behind it, when the work is done. Crippling bureaucracy and conflicting power blocks mean this is an easier solution than getting the government to create infrastructure and maintain it.
This last trope masks a regrettable truth. When our federal system is shown to be inefficient and unwieldy even through tropes, it sends each Canadian a stern subconscious message that success will only get taken from you in the end. This shackles our creative enterprise, spirit of innovation, creativity and discovery, and stagnates our research, development and transition into a healthier, more equitable world. Even if a government oversight of private corporate ‘ infrastructure shepherding’ works, it still is a bittersweet lesson – where in America there is ‘too big to fail’, in Canada there is ‘too big to continue’. Either way, the government is there, and the natural course of events is altered.
I always worry about the future of our country as a thriving, living, creative entity when these tropes emerge. I worry because I have seen roads and bridges decay and be poorly managed, I have seen people go without things that, by necessity or design, were supposed to be federally or provincially managed, and I have heard from too many people that ‘they would create/pursue/invent such-and-such … but what’s the point?’
Rogers and Shaw saw the point, and spent decades training workers, innovating technology and creating the private infrastructure network which now stands to be ‘marked out’ in a field of ‘fair competition’. True, someone is going to walk away with over $20 billion dollars… but for me, there is poignancy in the idea that something created by people can be taken away from their own management.
… Now that we’ve doffed our hats to these grass roots businesses-made-good, let’s also remember: Rogers in the east and Shaw in the west became the juggernauts of data and communications in Canada. This was in part because of their propensity for buying up small competitors as the industry. These relentless mergers happened as the industry became increasingly dependent upon high-technology and infrastructure Canada did not construct, nor could medium suppliers provide. Let’s remember that free enterprise and Canadian-controlled information technology manufacturing was relentlessly strangled by these micro-mergers.Again – why create a business making components or supplies, when it was so much cheaper from overseas, and the big companies were buying from there, increasing their profit margins?
Rapacious in their appetites and inscrutably monolithic in their determination, they are now on the threshold of their final battle, to determine who will emerge the victor… or if each is consumed by the other.
In the event such a merger takes place, we need to remember that we will have witnessed two behemoths fight each other to the death, and that a new, quite possibly more rapacious creature may arise in result:
Let’s remember that this free enterprise was used to quash competitive rates – after all, Canada had very expensive cellular and internet rates with dubious rural connectivity before the merger. One of the major dialogues of critique I have heard about this merger is concern that rates will continue to rise, which is fair. Again, however, it masks more sinister questions of right and freedom.
It’s apparent that Canada, as usual, has a very foggy idea about what industries and infrastructure should be privately owned and managed, and what should be provincially or federally managed. We need to be brave enough to have this conversation and assign scope of work according to what is best for the nation and for ourselves.
I do not dispute that communications infrastructure is an essential part of our national security. This is true, and I feel that in order to remain secure and internationally competitive, Canada should indeed ensure that all people have fair, equitable and effective access to communications.
I do raise the queries, “Why has this infrastructure not been federally managed since the beginning, if it is indeed integral enough to be federally overseen?” and “Who oversees the overseers of this private/public monolith?”
The Federal Goverment, that lovely entity encapsulated in our clear “Canada” with the maple leaf logo, wishes that it could present itself as a stable, clearly delineated shepherd of our nation and its public good. Thus, it would not require oversight. That would a) make it a monolithic, non-democratic system and b) mean that it was the final say on the scope of individual attainment, prosperity, health, well-being and fate.
This is a fallacious assertion, because we do hold elections of officials which make up our Parliament, those officials are elected according to party lines and platforms, and individual candidates as well as parties can be lobbied and courted. As stated above, this means the shepherding can change over time, according to the interests not just of the people, but of lobbyists.
Let’s remember what happens when a single, private corporation controls a great deal of, or the entirety of, an industry: it makes a huge amount of money.
What makes effective lobbying again? Oh, yes… money.
If the Federal Government was the eternal Good Shepherd it presented, that would be one thing, a true fact with which we as individuals could have an ongoing dialogue. A question of lobbying would be a moot point. In practice, this immunity of a single governing body to the influence of money and lobbyists is ephemeral. Still, the Federal Government wields a great degree of actual monolithic oversight and control. By hiding this power behind private corporate oversight tropes, crown corporations or enforced subsets of free enterprise within these structures, the reality is hidden. For the tropes, no one sees the hybrid world in which we as Canadians live – part monarchic, part democratic, part bureaucratic, and part free enterprise. These are many players, and they all tangle in one another, at the expense of each of us and the public good.
This whole merger brings to light a number of questions about our country and its approach to personal freedom of speech, surveillance, cyberthreats, creation, innovation, invention, free enterprise, prosperity and national security. Let’s talk about these issues while we are on the cusp of a sea change in our national communications network and make sure that we do not set ourselves up for failure in terms of poor management, changeable intentions, and most importantly, for freedom of speech, action, enterprise and equity of service delivery.