WHAT IS TELECOMMUNICATIONS POLICY?
Telecommunications policy determines the operating rules for telephone, cable, satellite, and wireless transmission and computer networks. These are the pipelines through which information is transmitted electronically. Telecommunications policy includes the following areas:
WHY SHOULD I BE INTERESTED?
Information is essential to your participation in deciding how to vote, where to live, how to find a job, organizing life long learning, and planning your retirement - all depend on timely access to information. If you are suddenly required to pay for information which was previously received for free or if the telephone system begins to charge for each call you make, your quality of life is profoundly affected by decisions in which you took no part.
Over the next decade, hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested in telecommunication networks (telephone, cable, and satellite) and the production of information and entertainment products. Billions will be made in profits. Government and industry are currently involved in many studies, hearings, task forces, and committees. The outcome will determine who benefits and who pays in the coming information economy.
The public is not represented at these hearings and discussions. The CRTC has recently allowed monthly telephone rate increases and repackaging and increased charges by cable companies. Public protest against the cable changes show that the corporations and CRTC are not representing the public interest. Only a few community organizations with limited resources are attempting to represent the public interest on these issues. Among these are: libraries, Public Interest Advocacy Groups, FreeNets, and groups working for freedom of information and protection of privacy. This brochure outlines some of the issues that are important to you.
The ability to read and write is fundamental to participating in the workforce, being active socially and politically or defending your interests. Up to 25% of Canadians do not have sufficient skills to accomplish basic daily tasks. Lack of literacy skills causes great personal hardship as well as costing the economy over $4 billion a year. Any information policy must provide the means to assist individuals to get this basic skill.
Governments are the largest producers of information in Canada. These same governments, (federal, provincial, municipal) are also desperately looking for revenue. Two sources of revenue under consideration are selling government information to the private sector for repackaging and resale or to charge the public directly.
Some believe that government information should be sold for revenue. But taxpayers believe that they have already paid for the collection of the information and they should be assured free access to the information required to participate fully in society. For most people in Canada, libraries are the major source of government information. A Federal Government program and some provincial programs place a free copy of most government publications in major libraries. Such programs are underfunded, not protected by legislation, and vulnerable to changes in government policy. Many documents are never sent to the libraries. Some information is only available in electronic form and is therefore not available in many libraries.
A strong and legislated library depository program will assure your access to government information such as health information, labour standards, consumer information, environmental enforcement reports, Hansard and government committee and legislative reports.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION LEGISLATION
FOI legislation allows individuals to request a wide range of government information that may not normally be available. The Federal Government and all the provinces except Alberta and Prince Edward Island have some version of this legislation although the degree of access varies widely. FOI legislation is important because it can open the operations of government to public scrutiny. All versions of this legislation require improvements to increase access and limit the exemptions to releasing information.
PERSONAL PRIVACY PROTECTION
Computers and telecommunications make it possible for governments and corporations to collect vast amounts of information on individuals. Protection of personal information is an important concern for most people. Personal privacy protection legislation ensures that you know what information the government is collecting about you; that it is only collected for specific reasons associated with specific government programs or laws; and that you can correct any inaccurate information. The Federal Government and most provinces have some privacy legislation covering government data. Recent studies have shown that most people are concerned about protection of privacy for personal information held by the private sector. Quebec has recently extended legislated privacy protection to the private sector.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
Copyright, patents, and trademarks protect the investment of creators in their creation. On the other side, intellectual property rights create barriers to access, particularly in libraries where many users want to photocopy part of a book for research or personal information. Current copyright legislation is not clear about the rights of users. This many-sided debate requires a balance between the rights of creators and the access rights of the public.
CITIZEN'S CHARTER OF INFORMATION RIGHTS
A Citizen's Charter of Information
Rights will provide protection to the public and ensure that a basic level of
information will be freely available to all. It will take a major political
effort on the part of a wide spectrum of the community to achieve such a Charter.
Library Association has adopted a draft set of Information
and Telecommunication Access Principles for continued discussion by its
membership and the general community. These principles are available through
your local library and include the following rights.
All citizens have the right to:
REGULATION OF THE TELEPHONE AND CABLE SYSTEMS
The Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has recently ended the telephone company monopoly on long-distance service and allowed telephone companies to increase local rates (CRTC 94-19).
Following the pattern established in the United States, long-distance rates are dropping for those who use them and all telephone users will see their local telephone rates increase. CRTC 94-19, which is now on hold, would increase local telephone costs by up to 30%. Other suggestions for increasing local telephone service costs have included Local Metered Service (LMS) where users would be charged by the length and number of local calls. Increased local telephone charges, LMS or some other formula, would decrease the number of people who could afford to use telephones. Access to friends, to essential social services, and to institutions such as libraries, information centres and freenets would be reduced.
Many of the CRTC hearings focus on debates between the cable and telephone industries to determine who will get the advantage on the new electronic highway. Once again, the public interest is not represented.
WHAT IS THE ELECTRONIC HIGHWAY?
A popular term in the media, the "electronic highway" refers to the high-speed telecommunication network, including telephone, cable and satellite, which will allow vast amounts of information and entertainment to be distributed to your home.
Who will own this network? Who will have access to it? Who will be excluded from it? Who is participating in developing the policy around these issues? How much will it cost you? Who is protecting your interests?
The Federal Government has established the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) consisting of thirty individuals, mainly corporate representatives, to determine policy. While limited opportunities have been available for public participation, the vast majority of the public is unaware of the activities of IHAC. No large scale community education or public hearing process has occurred. And, like the CRTC, those community groups who could defend the public interest do not have the resources to properly do so.
Canada, through the Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education (CANARIE), is building a high-speed network. It is being built with private funds and government support. However, little consideration has been given to providing access to libraries, community organizations and freenets. Even less consideration has been given to providing resources for the creation of non-commercial public information on this network.
Current policies will divide the population into those who have broad access to high-speed telecommunication networks and other sources of information and those who do not. Those who have access will have an advantage over those who do not in every area of their lives.
Freenets are free, public access, community computer systems which are being developed in communities across North America. They provide free access to new technologies so that all people can create and share information with others in their local community or across the world.
Freenets are not wealthy and, like
other community organizations, are in danger of being shut out of the new telecommunication
networks. Librarians, and many other people, believe that the power of the new
technologies should be available to everyone. Policies must be developed to
ensure that freenets, libraries and other community organizations and individuals
are not excluded from the electronic highway.
INFORMATION RIGHTS WEEK IS AN OPPORTUNITY
FOR YOUR VOICE TO BE HEARD
Government studies are being conducted and hearings are being carried out to plan the electronic future of Canada. Your voice must be heard.
During Information Rights Week, libraries and other community organizations will be sponsoring programs, discussion groups, and debates on the issues outlined in this brochure. Come and be educated and informed.
Let governments, community organizations and corporations know your opinions. Make sure that your information rights are not lost in this electronic future.
For more information, contact your local library.
Copyright © 1995 BCLA Information Policy Committee
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