By: Karissa Gall
The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) held its 3rd annual Canadian Internet Forum in Ottawa on February 28, including speeches and discussions on digital literacy, cyber-security and Internet governance by industry leaders.
While Industry Canada Associate Deputy Minister Marta Morgan used the time allotted to her during the opening remarks to comment on technological advances such as 4G technology going into cars and the “unpredictable, dynamic future of the Internet,” the presentations and discussions that followed were more critical of the future of the Internet in Canada.
During his panel presentation, Matthew Johnson, director of education at Canadian not-for-profit organization MediaSmarts, declared that Canada is “at a crossroads.”
“We can continue with our traditional ways of doing business and educating our young people, our workers and our citizens as though we were still an industrial society, or we can seize the new opportunities that have been generated in the wake of rapid and relentless technological change,” said Johnson. “The significant economic, social and cultural opportunities that are potentially available to all Canadians however, can only be capitalized upon if we provide both the framework and the support for establishing a digitally literate population.”
Johnson defined “genuine digital literacy” as not only knowing how to use digital tools and platforms but also having “the ability to use, understand and create digital content.”
“MediaSmarts strongly believes digital literacy is an essential right of all Canadians,” he said. “Digital literacy addresses the human component of ICT (Information and Communication Technology), the component that turns a network of cables and terminals into a civic commons, a world-wide library, and a viable marketplace.
“Citizens who are lacking in digital literacy skills risk being disadvantaged and left behind when it comes to accessing health care, government services, opportunities for employment, education and civic participation.”
Johnson said that Canada’s status on supporting and promoting digital literacy for its citizens is “not an encouraging picture” because “government emphasis has been on broadband access with no corresponding programming on adoption,” “there is no comprehensive digital literacy strategy from the federal government,” and programs that supported the development of digital literacy skills under Industry Canada’s old CyberWise strategy such as SchoolNet, LibraryNet and the Community Access Program (CAP) have all been cancelled and have not been replaced with similar or successor programs.
“Shortages in these areas, shortages in citizens who are fully digitally literate, mean less innovation and productivity in the workplace and missed opportunities for personal growth,” he said, calling for a comprehensive federal, provincial, and territorial digital literacy strategy, funding for digital literacy programs, and support for community technology hubs.
The cancellation of CAP came up later in the forum, when after the keynote speaker and cyber-security panel presentation and discussion, audience member and freelance Internet policy researcher Marita Moll said, “We had a very internationally recognized program in this country for 20 years called the Community Access Program, we lost that in March, and there wasn’t enough outrage among the Internet community on that particular issue.”
Moll questioned the cancellation of CAP and put a call to action out to organizations such as CIRA and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
“As a nation we have to sit down under digital literacy and put this thing back together, before it falls apart completely and we lose 20 years of work in communities,” she said.
Johnson commiserated with Moll’s expressed concerns, calling the cancellation of programs such as CAP and the failure to implement similar or successor programs “terrible”, and panelist Kerry Augustine of the Canadian Cyber Defense Challenge stated that we have to “look for a way of how we resurrect the program to make it relevant.”
After a Montreal man participating in the forum via webcast called in to ask how to improve digital literacy “for those who don’t know what digital literacy can do for them,” Augustine further said that “the question is really getting at the heart of those who would not be able to afford a smartphone, how do we engage them, and I think that’s where community programs and professional association groups need to create that outreach, they have the access to those resources or through agencies that have access to those resources.”
“Even with money you still need people, and people need to get engaged,” said Augustine. “You help those who can help themselves, teach them the basics of what it takes to be successful online, and at the same time promote the practices of helping others. Perhaps that is one way of creating more of that outreach where students and others would actually look to reaching out to those who are less fortunate to have that access.”