Social media apps on a phone.
Social media apps on a phone. Credit: Adem AY / Unsplash Credit: Adem AY / Unsplash

Like the Railroad Barons of the late 19th century, today’s Big Tech giants strut around, acting like they own the world (which they mostly do). Among their many imperious actions, they’ve taken to blocking Canadians’ access to our own news.

This is their high-handed response to Ottawa’s attempt to force them to pay Canadian publishers for news content, which Big Tech giants Google and Meta link to on their social media platforms.

Without some crackdown by Ottawa, Canadian publishers will have trouble staying in business, as Google and Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram, etc.) are managing to scoop up billions of advertising dollars that used to support the Canadian media.

So, it’s easy to side with the Canadian media business — even though it’s largely dominated by corporate chains. (Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star, also owns a half-dozen smaller Ontario newspapers. The largest Canadian newspaper chain by far — owning about half of Canada’s newspapers — is Postmedia, which has a strong right-wing bias and is owned by a U.S. hedge fund.)

But Ottawa’s intervention on behalf of Canadian media — important as it is — doesn’t even attempt to achieve what Canadians really need: more control over the digital universe that increasingly dominates our lives.

The core problem is that the technology that largely determines our access to the news — and just about everything else we do online — is controlled by a few Big Tech giants that are highly sophisticated in extracting money from us, governing how we search for information and, in the process, shaping public discourse and much else about the way we live.

What we need is a public digital infrastructure that is not beholden to private interests.

As James Muldoon, a political scientist at the University of Exeter, puts it: “I don’t think access to humanity’s collective knowledge should be controlled by a for-profit company.”

An open-source digital system — which would be publicly funded — could enable democratic governance, allowing independent media to flourish. And a public search engine — a publicly financed version of Google — could ensure us all access to the vast trove of human knowledge and information, without being routed in ways that limit our control and benefit private interests.

This may sound too wildly ambitious, but it’s really just an updated version of the wildly ambitious public takeover of the key, emerging market in the early 1900s — for electricity.

That public takeover happened after a popular movement — led by ordinary citizens and small business owners — championed the cause of “public power.”

They wanted to create a new public infrastructure for hydro power, wresting control from the mighty private interests — dubbed “Water Barons” — who had taken over the transformative new power source.

This pitted them against the likes of powerful Toronto business mogul Henry Pellatt, who headed a syndicate pushing for rights to develop Niagara Falls power. (Pellatt is best known for the massive mansion he built for himself, which he called “Casa Loma.”)

But the popular movement for “public power” triumphed.

Shortly after his 1905 election, Conservative Premier James P. Whitney created Ontario Hydro, turning electricity into a public utility and declaring that water power “should not in the future be made the sport and prey of capitalists.”

This public takeover of electricity, ratified overwhelmingly by municipal voters, proved crucial to the province’s development. By ensuring low electricity rates, it enabled Ontario industry to compete with larger U.S. businesses.

Creating a public infrastructure for the digital world today could be just as transformative. But it would require the Trudeau government to be truly bold and innovative and actually challenge Big Tech’s power and control over our lives.

Sadly, as noted by Dru Oja Jay, publisher of the online media outlet The Breach, which champions a public digital infrastructure: “Decades of neo-liberalism have melted our collective imagination.”

Imagine if we had a political leader today willing to fight to keep the digital universe from being merely “the sport and prey of capitalists.”

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...