Commodification, Communication, and Culture: Democracy's Dead End on the Infobahn 1

Shawn W. Yerxa and Marita Moll, Co-ordinators of the Public Information Highway Advisory Council 2

ABSTRACT: Current policy discussions surrounding the development of the information highway have far reaching implications for Canada's social, political, and economic future. This article examines recent government initiatives as they relate to free speech, equality and democracy. In light of this analysis some alternatives are suggested.

RÉSUMÉ: Les discussions sur les politiques actuelles entourant le développement de l'autoroute électronique ont des répercussions d'une portée considérable pour l'avenir social, politique et économique du Canada. Cet article se penche sur de récentes initiatives gouvernementales se rapportant à la liberté de parole, l'égalité et la démocratie. À la lumière de cette analyse, quelques solutions de rechange sont suggérées.


Canada is moving quickly toward a widely available enhanced digital communication network. Building upon the combined infrastructures of the telephone and cable companies, the "information highway" is often billed as the greatest technological development since the printing press. How does this electronic network or "infobahn", as some critics prefer to call it, relate to Canadian society and government? How will a digital network impact our political discourse? What implications does the developing structure of the infobahn hold for interpersonal, cross-cultural, and national communication? How is that structure being developed and by who? Will the developing structure evolve in a manner which facilitates a more democratic society?

These concerns are essentially consistent with the development of new communication media throughout our history, yet we stand poised to ignore some and obscure others. Given the numerous failings of our contemporary communication and information configurations and conventions, change is not something which should necessarily be resisted, however the direction of change should be carefully considered. The particular policies considered here are extremely important because they have the potential to change how Canadians communicate with each other and how we govern our society.

In an attempt to pull together the seemingly disparate themes suggested by these questions and illustrate the importance of considering them, this essay briefly examines current government communication and information policy initiatives, places them in a historical context, provides our perception of where these initiatives are leading, considers specifically how and what is jeopardised by such a direction, and in closing, suggests some alternatives.

Communication and Democracy

Perhaps the quintessential question of political philosophy, "who should rule?" has, from our earliest record, been synonymous with questions of knowledge, information, and communication. The Athenian agora, the birthplace of our conceptualization of democracy, offered one solution to these questions. The modern state, developing alongside and in recognition of the limitations of the capitalist market place, has attempted to modernize that concept. Even though the practice has often been more of an illusion than a reality, one of the cornerstones of modern democracy has been popular control of communication media. Various constitutions articulate the central premises differently, but throughout much of the world the answers to "who should rule" and "how" are closely related to the principles of free speech and equality, two fundamental democratic principles which are found in conflict with the relations imposed by capitalist production.3

The idea that megacorporations functioning in any market economy, let alone a global one, can or will provide public goods belies history as well as accepted "laws" of capitalist production (Heilbroner, 1992; Schiller, 1989). In spite of history, economics, and philosophy, it appears to be decided in 1995 that the market can and should rule. In a few short years, fuelled by the mysticism of economic determinism and corporate funded policy analysis (Babe, 1990), our political discourse suggests we have come to believe that the market can provide society with what it needs to sustain a healthy democracy, most notably education; health and social programs; secure, well paying jobs; and open, effective communication. While the ideas expressed by such "neo-liberal" dogma are far from new, their domination of our policy making processes has never been so complete (Marchak,1991; White, 1993). As Richard J. Barnet suggests, "The relationship between the corporation and the state has been turned on its head" (Barnet, 1994).

In this new relationship information is increasingly seen as a resource to be exploited, culture is commodified, and communication is facilitated subject to market constraints. What does this tell us about our culture, communication, and the emerging information highway? Scholar and filmmaker Sut Jhally suggests that halting our further descent into barbarism, and indeed insuring the future of the species, depends, in part, on getting an alternative message out (Jhally, 1994). The dissemination and discussion of alternative ideas will require communication systems which offer citizens choice and freedom--real choice, not the consumer choice being designed by media conglomerates in conjunction with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and Industry Canada. Before proceeding with a discussion of how this commodification affects control of our communications, it will help to clearly demonstrate that the current processes and policies are moving us in a direction which will restrict rather than expand citizens' ability to communicate.

Current Policy Initiative

In its discussion paper, issued in conjunction with the establishment of the Advisory Council on Information Highway Policy (now renamed the Information Highway Advisory Council), the federal government indicates a desire to redesign Canada's communication infrastructure around three objectives and four principles:

Upon close examination these objectives contain inherent contradictions. While universal access is a necessary precondition of democratic communication, the inclusion of an ambiguous cost qualification indicates the economic determinism of the getting prices right philosophy which is rapidly eroding the very cultural distinctiveness that the second objective alludes to, cultural sovereignty (Raboy, Bernier, Sauvageau, and Atkinson, 1994). Canada's traditional policy mechanisms for the protection of culture require the commodification of culture and its analysis exclusively in terms of industries. Canadian cultural industries then, through one means or another, are offered incentives to provide a baseline of content along with the exclusive or oligopolistic right to market foreign, mostly American, products. Whether these mechanisms are effective or not they stand threatened by the shift to market forces suggested by the government's discussion paper.4

The objective of job creation in these sectors, whether it be in the production of information technology or content, belies the globalizing trends of the present economy, complete with its downward pressure on wages and emphasis on downsizing and competition. This economy, expressly acknowledged in the discussion paper, is facilitated by the very technologies the government seeks to promote. What these contradictions suggest, or perhaps more accurately reveal, is that the government's objectives are designed to promote investment and the protection of investments, and as we argue here, at the expense of democratic principles.

Turning to the principles stated in the discussion paper, we can see how those particular investments work against concerns for free speech, equality, and democracy. The mandated interconnection of the cable and telecommunication infrastructures (Clarified as such in the recent Privy Council's Order in Council 1994-1689. See: Canada, 1994) while perhaps a prudent investment goal, requiring the maximization of both existing infrastructures, will not, by itself, provide for anything other than further concentration of ownership as the now obvious distinctions between cable and telephone are eroded. Since the 1930's, five Royal commissions and special committees studying broadcasting and communications have recognized the dangers to democratic society of ownership and control of the media by private interests (Bird, 1989). Each of these studies expressed concern at a time when the level of media concentration, boldly deemed to be in the national interest by Keith Spicer, chairman of the CRTC, when announcing the recent approval of the Rogers/Maclean Hunter merger, would not have been dreamed of (Cobb,1974). The discussion paper does not stop with this implicit allowance for more concentrated ownership but suggests that public funds should support the development of such an infrastructure.

The principle of "competition in facilities, products and services" does not bode well for democratic values. The introduction of "unfettered competition of media producers," as David C. Robinson suggests, "ultimately restricts freedom by generating barriers to entry, restricting diversity, and converting public information into private commodities" (Robinson, 1993:58). Or as Vincent Mosco suggests, markets "favour those with market power, namely people with the money to pay for information goods and for the capital to produce and distribute them" (Mosco, 1994:37). True competition, or some variation of the forced or pseudo-competition which required two national airlines and "may very well soon leave us with none" (Mosco, 1994:37) will not change the relationships which find the CRTC consistently producing decisions contrary to the public interest (Rideout, 1993).

In light of the 1994 Annual Report of Canada's Privacy Commissioner (Canada, Privacy Commissioner, 1994), "Privacy protection", when combined with "network security", suggests the intent is more focused on the protection of corporate interests through copyright protection and the provision of secure communication channels for financial transactions rather than protecting public and individual information from undue exploitation. All of these areas, have been advanced in the form of proposed new copyright legislation (Industry Canada, 1994c), relaxed barriers between telecommunication carriers and broadcasters (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 1994), and new public expenditures on research and development (Industry Canada, 1994a).5

In addition to the stated objectives and principles, the government has been moving ahead in other ways to ensure that the overall environment of electronic communication is both profitable and exclusionary. The government states its vision unequivocally in its October 1994 Order in Council to the CRTC, "Much of the discussion that follows deals with the Government's vision of competition, and it is essential that vision be well understood. The government's goal is to preserve and expand fair competition" (Canada, 1994). As well as promoting competition, in this document the government puts forth the broadcasting model as the one which should dominate the infobahn. This is built around a model of one-to-many communication and offers no separation between content provider and carrier.

Government information will undoubtedly be one of the hot commodities on the "competitive" infobahn if the Blueprint released by the Treasury Board Secretariat holds firm. The Blueprint, expressing concepts built around a corporate/consumer model, puts forth a multi-tiered system of information dissemination which will see only the simplest and most mundane information provided free while the value added materials are preserved for corporate consumption in "cost recovery" programs (Canada, Treasury Board Secretariat, 1994). This extension of the government's limited access to information policies to the electronic medium are being made more regressive in light of recent moves to reduce expenditures by discontinuing the publication of government documents (Land, 1994) and required cross-departmental sharing of private information.

Communication and Control

Why is control so critical to development of a democratic communication system? A comprehensive answer to such a question is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is instructive to note the unique situation of telephone communications. Canadian history is littered with discussions of the cultural impacts of the print, radio, film, music, and television media (Audley, 1994) yet there are few or no such discussions related to telephony. Telephones are considered an extension of personal communication, therefore the content of our conversations is protected. Control of how we use the telephone is limited only by the Criminal Code, our respective economic resources, and the technology itself. Our communications via the telephone are not controlled, beyond criminal behaviour, by the state or our telephone service providers. Given the interpretation of government initiatives provided above, how have policy makers rationalized the inherent private control, implicit in the broadcasting model of communications, on interactive digital communications, while in the same documents claiming to promote a liberating and empowering new technology? Many of the answers are found in the assumptions and definitions implicit in government policy documents.

Industry Canada and the CRTC would have us believe that consumers are given control through a commercial version of interactivity. Interactivity, according to these institutions, means being offered the opportunity to choose the source of our information from a range of pre-selected commercial media. This strategy appears to be based at least three false assumptions: the suggestion that consumers control the market by exercising choice, the suggestion that all voices will have equal opportunity for expression, and that the only important communication is that which can be commodified.

The consumer model being promoted assumes not only that the citizen and consumer are synonymous but that the consumer can shape the market through rational choice. We do not have to look too far back in history to see how other public systems have fared when choice in the marketplace was deemed to offer the best options. Few people today realize that many North American cities lost their public transportation systems in the 1930s "when the oil companies forged an alliance with Mack Truck, GM and dozens of other firms. The new National Lines bought more than 15 trolley tracks throughout the U.S.--and tore them up" (Schmitt, 1994:49). The choice between public and private transportation ceased to exist in those areas. Through a similar series of relationships, information which is most profitable to a particular carrier will be the choice offered to consumers, if the proposed paradigm prevails.

The suggestion that all voices will have equal opportunity for expression assumes that media gatekeepers, particularly owners, will never have cause to surpress, ignore, minimize, or misrepresent information. Yet, media critics monitoring the effects of concentration of ownership in the newspaper industry have produced well researched documentation of how the political and corporate philosophy of the media owners exert strong influence over the content and editorial style of newspapers (Bagdikian, 1992). James Winter and Amir Hassanpour, in their study of overlapping ownership and influence in Canadian media, large corporations and government conclude: "No wonder government, business and the media speak the same language--they're run by the same group of friends" (1994:10). How will critics of a communication service fare when the integrity of the service used to communicate, rather than simply disseminate information, is subject to these commercial concerns? The answer has already been provided in the U.S. where Prodigy has been criticized for reading private correspondence and terminating accounts of subscribers using the service to protest a rate increase. (Dean Takahashe as quoted in Branscomb, 1994:99).

If the only communications travelling our society's infobahn are those which can be commodified and traded, free speech and equality fall prey to market discipline. The concept of a public good is, in part, based on the realization that the market will not provide all that society needs to function. Even today, mail to the House of Commons requires no postage in recognition of the fact that citizens must not be prohibited by cost from communicating with their elected representatives. Government publications are made available without charge to public libraries designated as depository libraries, where they can be freely consulted by citizens. How will services so vital to a democracy be duplicated in the electronic delivery mode when the routes are controlled by private ownership, geared to competition, and in effect, have a significant user fee in place?

The Public Communication Model

Writing about the Carleton University "Wired City" experiments in the 1970s, David Coll articulated the fundamental features which have made the Internet the dynamic and empowering technology that it is today.

	To avoid the growth of the kind of computer/communications system 
	that could impose rigid constraints on society, it was deemed 
	essential to ensure user control.  Systems had to be designed in such 
	a way that communications would be supported and enhanced, allowing 
	the user the capability to communicate with whom or what he chose and 
	with a minimum of difficulty.  If a "wired city" was to become a 
	reality it would have to evolve in a manner that would meet problems 
	as they arose, to meet user requirements as yet unknown.  (Coll, 
	no date:2-3)

The support and enhancement of a communication medium which is user controlled and develops in direct response to users' needs is not the aim of the information highway emerging from the current round of government policy making. We suggest, instead, a public model of the information highway which would be primarily concerned with facilitating communication between individuals and groups while at the same time not only safeguarding, but augmenting, the rights of all Canadians to information, especially government information.

The principal of universal access would be a top priority, in recognition of the fact that all citizens, regardless of geographic location or socio- economic status, must be able to participate in the communications of a democratic society. Affordable access to basic, reliable computer communications systems and skill training should be part of a national strategy to empower citizens and enable them to participate more fully in the decisions which affect their lives. Costs to the individual of using the information highway should be designed to encourage maximum use, and would not be distance, time, or volume sensitive. In short, an evenly distributed minimum flat rate charge needed to support and maintain the basic infrastructure, subsidized if necessary.

As Canada's Privacy Commissioner states in the 1994 Annual Report our "personal privacy and dignity" are destined to be "the first roadkill" of the information highway (Canada, Privacy Commissioner, 1994:2). Measures to protect the privacy of individuals in a digital world must be put in place before transactions which incorporate personal information become more common. As commercial services begin to carry more of our financial, health, and other personal information, this information must be protected from abuse and not used or transmitted without repeated, explicit permission.

An additional requirement is the continuation of the level of integrity and security we have come to associate with the telephone. To this end the distinction between carrier and content must be re-established and maintained. This has the dual benefit of ensuring service and privacy for the individual as well as providing an infrastructure more open to small service providers offering choice and innovation.

This model of the information highway can only be implemented with the support and participation of both the public and the state. Public resources and regulation will be required to maintain control over the basic infrastructure facilitating this medium. As commercial services are carried, the operators of those services can be responsible for a portion of the cost of the infrastructure.

As Coll suggested in the 1970s, and was proven correct in the ensuing years by the construction of the Internet, users must define the system if it is to be useful and accepted. The cable experiments with Telidon and Bell Canada's Alex demonstrated the limited utility of pre-packaged, inflexible, consumer-driven communication media. The Coalition for Public Information, in a recent presentation to the Information Highway Advisory Council, pointed out that the technology, however limited, is essentially already in place for making greater services available to the public (Coalition for Public Information, 1994). All that awaits is public information, awareness, and accessibility. It would be difficult, we suggest, to find a model more distant from or in greater conflict with the public interest than the current government/consumer model of home shopping, video-on-demand, arcade games, and gambling. Yet, every new proposal and decision related to the infobahn brought forward by our elected representatives provides a new milestone.

A Different Government Role

	I would like to suggest to you that the crisis of technology is 
	actually a crisis of governance.  I say governance rather than 
	government because I think the crisis is actually much deeper than 
	the policies of any particular government, although some governments 
	are worse that others.  The crisis can best be addressed if you ask 
	yourself, "What is the task of government in this real world of 
	technology?  What are the tasks for which we elect and pay 
	governments?  What do we expect them to do, rather than to say?" 
	(Franklin, 1990:120)

More recently Ursula Franklin added to these questions by asking directly if the roles of government, law, regulation and public policy are in fact to make the world safe and profitable for technology and those who employ it, as we argue in this essay that they appear to be. "If so, who gave their consent to this use of public policy, public funds, and public law enforcement?" (Franklin, 1994:136).

All Royal commissions studying the role of communications in our society have stated unequivocally that it is in the public interest for governments to retain control of communication media. It can therefore not be said that the present agenda has emanated from public demand. The economic determinism of increasingly globalized of trade and finance continues only at the behest of human agency, our own. Where then does this agenda come from? In a submission to the CRTC with respect to the Rogers/Maclean Hunter application, we pointed out that the deep pockets of media corporations were well able to finance the studies and lobbying activities needed to advance their interests at all levels (Public Advisory Council on Information Highway Policy, 1994). But the more subtle and lasting effect on shaping public opinion has been the result of increasing commercialization and concentration of ownership of our media. According to Winter and Hassanpour, "Corporate control over the media has meant they have overwhelmingly promoted the neo-conservative agenda over the past decade" (Winter and Hassanpour, 1994:17). This continues to affect a broad range of interrelated issues from the manufacture of the "need" to pursue global markets through the "need" to consider privatizing parts of our education and health systems, perhaps the last sources of public funds commercially under-exploited. Caught in a hidden paradox, the public receives little or no information about the importance of control over communications systems because those systems are already firmly controlled by private interests, or subject to the same pressures (Herman, 1993).

It seems, our elected officials, regulators and public servants too are caught in this spell. They would do well to heed the words of Edwin Parker, then professor at Stanford University, who in an address to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 1975 emphasized the threat as follows: "The difference between George Orwell's 1984 and a hypothetical participatory democracy with widespread sharing of political power lies in the question of who controls the sending and receiving of information in the society" (as quoted in Parkhill, 1980:80). In Canada, in 1995, the choice is not even being offered.


[1] May be cite as/On peut citer comme suit:

Shawn W. Yerxa and Marita Moll, "Commodification, Communication, and Culture: Democracy's Dead End on the Infobahn," Government Information in Canada, 1, No. 3.2 (1995).


Shawn W. Yerxa

Marita Moll

Public Information Highway Advisory Council
The Public Information Highway Advisory Council (PIHAC) (formerly called the Public Advisory Council on Information Highway Policy--PACIHP) works to raise awareness of issues of public interest on the Internet, through traditional media, and in policy forums, as they relate to information and communication policy. Please contact or one of the authors for more information. See also: Yerxa and Moll, 1994, for a description of PIHAC's earlier incarnation.

[3] For a thorough yet accessible discussion of the some of the tensions inherent in liberal democracies see Heilbroner, 1992.

[4] An interesting contrast of views of the relationship between the state, cultural policy, and the open economy is presented in the most recent issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication, 19 (3/4) (1994).

[5] An assortment of Industry Canada news releases through 1994 illustrate the continued and in some cases increased or new expenditure of public funds for research and development. See: Industry Canada, 1994a.


Audley, Paul. (1994) "Cultural Industries Policy: Objectives, Formulation, and Evaluation," Canadian Journal of Communication, 19 (3/4), pp. 317-352.

Babe, Robert E. (1990) Telecommunications in Canada: Technology, Industry, and Government. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bagdikian, Ben H. (1992) The Media Monopoly (4th ed). Boston: Beacon Press.

Barnet, Richard J. (1994, December 30) "Lords of the Global Economy," The Ottawa Citizen, p. A9.

Bird, Roger. (1989) Documents of Canadian Broadcasting. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

Branscomb, Ann Wells. (1994) Who Owns Information: From Privacy to Public Access. New York: Basic Books.

Canada. (1994) Order in Council P.C. 1994-1689. Available: gopher://

Canada. Privacy Commissioner. (1994) Annual Report. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada.

Canada. Treasury Board Secretariat. (1994) Blueprint for Renewing Government Services Using Information Technology. Ottawa: Treasury Board Secretariat. Also available: gopher://

Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. (1994) Telecom Decision 94-1B [Review of Regulatory Framework] Hull, Quebec: Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.

Coalition for Public Information (1994) Universal Access Document. Toronto: Coalition for Public Information. Available: gopher:// Universal Access Document.

Cobb, Chris. (1994, December 20) "Now, Bigger is Better, Supposedly for All," The Ottawa Citizen, p. A4.

Coll, D. C. (no date--ca. 1975) The Wired City Laboratory: Studies in Interactive Broadband Communications. Ottawa: Wired City Laboratory, Carleton University.

Ernst, Alan. (1992, Autumn) "From Liberal Continentalism to Neo-Conservativism: North American Free Trade and the Politics of the C. D. Howe Institute," Studies in Political Economy: A Socialist Review, 39, pp. 109-140.

Franklin, Ursula. (1990) The Real World of Technology. Toronto: CBC Enterprises.

Franklin, Ursula. (1994) "Afterword," in Armine Yalnizyan, T. Ran. Ide and Arthur J. Cordell (eds.), Shifting Time: Social Policy and the Future of Work, pp. 135-137. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Heilbroner, Robert. (1992) Twenty-First Century Capitalism. Concord, Ont: House of Anansi Press.

Herman, Edward. (1993) "The Externalities Effects of Commercial and Public Broadcasting," in Kaarle Nordenstreng and Herbert I. Schiller (eds.), Beyond National Sovereignty: International Communication in the 1990s, pp. 442-458. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Publishing.

Industry Canada. (1994a). Assorted news releases. Available: gopher://

Industry Canada. (1994b) The Canadian Information Highway: Building Canada's Information and Communications Infrastructure. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services. Available: gopher:// Advisory.Council/rpt-fnl.txt

Industry Canada. (1994c) Government to Proceed with Amendments to Copyright Act [Industry Canada news release]. Available: gopher:// /Dec-22-94.nb2.

Jhally, Sut. (1994) "Commercial Culture, Collective Values and the Future of the Species." Paper presented at the CRITICAL Symposium, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ont., October 28, 1994.

Land, Brian. (1994) "Parliamentary Papers: Change is the Name of the Game," Government Information in Canada, 1 (1.4). Available: Media, 1 (3), pp. 14, 36-37.

Parkhill, Douglas. (1980) "The Necessary Structure," in David Godfrey and Douglas Parkhill, Gutenburg Two (2nd ed.), pp. 69-95. Victoria, B.C.: Press Porcepic.

Public Advisory Council on Information Highway Policy. (1994) The Public Advisory Council on Information Highway Policy's Opposing Intervention in Response to: Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 1994-11 and Related RCI Applications. Hull, Que: Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. Available: e-mail://

Raboy, Marc, Ivan Bernier, Florian Sauvageau, and Dave Atkinson. (1994) "Cultural Development and the Open Economy: A Democratic Issue and a Challenge to Public Policy," Canadian Journal of Communication, 19 (3/4), pp. 291-315.

Rideout, Vanda. (1993) "Telecommunication Policy for Whom? An Analysis of Recent CRTC Decisions," Alternate Routes, 10, pp. 27-56.

Robinson, David C. (1993) "Taking 'Freedom of the Press' Seriously: Critical Media Sociology and the Challenge of Democracy," Alternate Routes, 10, pp. 57-83.

Schiller, Herbert I. (1989) Culture Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schmitt, Steve. (1994, Summer) "The Auto Lobby Shifts into High Gear," Adbusters, 3 (2), p. 49.

Winter, James and Amir Hassanpour. (1994) "Building Babel," Canadian Forum, 72 (826) Jan/Feb, pp. 10-17.

White, Bob. (1993, Autumn) "A Prescription for a Country Where People Come before Profits," Action Dossier (39), pp. 4-6. Ottawa: Action Canada Network. Available: gopher://csf.Colorado.EDU:70/00/ipe/Thematic_Archive/newsletters/action_canada_dossier/dossier#39

Yerxa, Shawn W. and Marita Moll. (1994) "Notes from the Grassroots: On-line Lobbying in Canada," Internet Research, 4(4), pp. 9-19.