Investing in our digital future is critical to strengthening Canada's economy

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"It's the economy, stupid!"

That well-known political aphorism was first coined over 20 years ago by James Carville, a senior adviser to Bill Clinton.

The saying may be decades old, but it's still applicable to our current federal election. "Who can save the economy?" blares Maclean's in a banner headline. "The economy is the most critical ballot-box issue facing Canadian voters," intones The Globe and Mail, organizer of the recent leaders' debate on -- you guessed it -- the economy.

Voters seem to agree. Users of CBC's popular Vote Compass tool prioritized "the economy" far above other issues.

And yet, very little attention is being paid to the critical role our digital infrastructure plays in growing our wider economy. Ten years of failed government policies have left Canadians with a national digital deficit and a stark digital divide. Canadians are paying the price: 44 per cent of our lowest-income households have no Internet access, and over 30 per cent don't have a mobile phone.

It's little wonder that this is the case: a government report issued just before the election confirmed that Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for Internet and cell phone service.

Our sky-high Internet and wireless prices are a serious annoyance for middle- and high-income Canadians -- but for low-income Canadians, they make Internet access literally unaffordable; sidelining millions of people from our digital future.

How can this be acceptable in a wealthy country like Canada? Shouldn't our political leaders recognize that this digital divide puts our whole digital economy at risk?

Sadly, this government's track record has left Canada falling behind. Their eagerly awaited Digital Canada 150 strategy, which was supposed to present a strong vision for the Internet, was a serious letdown. The strategy delayed the rollout of even 5 Mbps broadband across Canada for another four years -- pushing the target to 2019, instead of 2015. Even by 2019, the government has only promised 98 per cent coverage, leaving 700,000 Canadians behind.

These unambitious and lacklustre government targets have, if anything, left Canada moving backwards, not forwards when it comes to our global counterparts. The U.S., meanwhile, has set a minimum speed for broadband of 25 Mbps, and a target of 100 Mbps broadband across the country by 2020. And in countries like Japan and South Korea it's common for households to enjoy access to lightning-fast fibre Internet for a fraction of what it costs Canadians for far more pedestrian plans.

It's clear that Canadians are feeling frustrated. OpenMedia community member Nic De Groot summed it up perfectly: "Canada: providing third-world Internet service at first-world price since the Internet began. It is tradition."

It's no wonder that leading innovators and entrepreneurs are speaking out, calling for real action to fix our broken telecom market. These business people are at the leading edge of Canada's digital economy, and know firsthand the economic costs of government failures.

Compounding these concerns is the government's irresponsible approach to online privacy. Scandals about the activities of Canada's spy agency CSE have undermined international confidence in our digital security. And the recent passage of Bill C-51 has left many Canadian business leaders -- including the heads of Slack, Hootsuite, and Shopify -- warning about how the legislation will "change Canada's business climate for the worse."

We need ambition. We need investment. We need privacy protections. And we need the priorities of Canadians to be taken seriously. That's why OpenMedia recently launched a pro-Internet action plan that aims to ensure, quite simply, that every Canadian has affordable access to world-class, surveillance-free Internet.

Our proposals were crowdsourced by over 250,000 people, and it seems that at least some politicians are listening. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has fully endorsed our plan, and over 120 candidates from across the political spectrum have spoken up for the Internet.

With the election now just weeks away, it's never been more important for Canadians to speak up and demand politicians listen when it comes to our digital economy. I encourage readers to use our message-your-candidates tool to tell your local candidates to take a stand for the free and open Internet.

Whether it's ensuring affordable Internet access, safeguarding our online privacy, or protecting free expression, this election will shape our digital future for the coming decades. We don't have a moment to lose.

David Christopher is communications manager for OpenMedia, a community-based group that works to safeguard the possibilities of the open Internet. A version of this piece was also published by Common Ground magazine.

Like our coverage of digital media? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

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