Combatting online hate

Back in late 2006, in one of my first year blog posts, I wrote “The 11 hallmarks of hate messages”, describing a determination by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that included a listing of what it called “hallmarks of material that is more likely than not to expose members of the targeted group to hatred or contempt.” Nearly 15 years later, that post continues to attract visits.

Canada has taken a leading role among its international peers in trying to deal with the certain human rights abuses, as home to the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal and the Digital Inclusion Lab at Global Affairs Canada, with G7 leadership emerging from the Charlevoix G7 Summit in 2018.

Last week, Canada’s consulates in San Francisco and Los Angeles co-sponsored an event with AJC, “Combatting Hate & Discrimination in Digital Spaces”.

There were a couple interesting handouts from the webinar that I thought would be worthwhile highlighting.

  • A report brief by Priya Kumar from the Digital Inclusion Lab looked at Online Antisemitism in the COVID-19 Context [pdf, 1.2MB], with findings that included “Exptremist voices have been using both mainstream social media and smaller fringe social media to spread antisemitic views, using the COVID-19 context and hateful visual imagery online to strategically reach wider audiences.

    “This report seeks to inform foreign policy with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, including protecting and promoting human rights, inclusive governance and democracy as well as an open, free and secure internet.”

  • Holly Huffnagle presented AJC’s Translate Hate Glossary [pdf, 5.3MB] looking at antisemitic terms, themes, and memes. According to AJC, the Translate Hate Glossary was created to improve media literacy on antisemitism and hate, offering a comprehensive list of terms and expressions to help recognize antisemitism and the global effort to fight and eliminate it.

Recall that last year, I wrote about terminology in Ministerial mandate letters (“Free from online discrimination”), for the Ministers of Industry, Heritage and Justice to work together to establish a set of “online rights” including “the ability to be free from online discrimination including bias and harassment.” I asked at that time:

What does it mean “to be free from online discrimination including bias”? Simply having a bias isn’t illegal and it should not be. We all have certain biases, frequently expressed through the newspapers we read or the political parties we favour. Commission of a criminal offence motivated by bias is a consideration for sentencing, but do we (or should we) have an “ability to be free from online bias”?

According to AJC, nearly 1 in 5 (19%) American Jews reported being the target of antisemitism on an online social media platform. About half (46%) said the platform didn’t take any steps.

What does it mean to be free from online discrimination including bias? What responsibilities should tech platforms have for illegal content being distributed? What actions should tech platforms be taking? What legislative framework is appropriate?

How do we recognize hate? And what are the appropriate responses to it, in view of preserving “an open, free and secure internet”?

Anchor institutions

In an earlier part of my consulting career, I would frequently fly into Washington, DC on little commuter planes known as Beechcraft 1900. (Remember the good old days, when we could freely travel between countries?)

There were 19 seats on those planes, 9 on one side, 10 on the other. It was a twin engine turbo prop plane and I would joke that it pretty much followed the highways on its way back and forth between Toronto and DC. Truth be told, I was never really happy about flying in a plane that would have the pilot move people around in order to balance the load. I prefer to fly in aircraft that can handle us ‘fuller figure’ fellows moving around a little without it causing some self-induced turbulence, if you understand what I am saying.

Sometimes, there just isn’t an alternative. The pilot relies on people being anchored in certain seats and handles the plane accordingly.

I told you that story to talk about the importance of anchors in the design of broadband networks in remote and rural communities. In some areas, the economics of broadband service is tied to the presence of ‘anchor institutions’, such as schools, civic offices, medical facilities and libraries.

Indeed, in last week’s CRTC announcement of 5 projects awarded under its Broadband Fund, the Commission noted that 26 anchor institutions would be connected.

As most people realize, the broadband requirements for an institution are usually more substantial than those for an average residential user. Faster speeds, higher capacity and usually an increased ability to pay for those differences. The term “anchor” is appropriate for these clients because they can provide economic stability, a key determinant for the economic viability of offering service in some areas. In the absence of those anchor clients, a larger subsidy might be required.

These are important considerations to keep in mind when you hear some folks advocate for municipalities to connect anchor institutions to a separate municipal network. Pulling anchor clients off the market can have the effect of reducing the economic incentives or viability for a service provider to upgrade facilities in an area. Municipal governments need to consider more than their own corporate broadband requirements and understand how their buying power can influence the quality of services that can be offered to the entire community.

A counter-intuitive approach, perhaps even offering a premium to usual retail rates, may serve the community’s interests even more, accelerating private sector investments and reducing the requirements for federal funding.

Those anchor institutions can provide the economic stability necessary to make a broadband business case go positive.

ConnectTO has already failed

Toronto City Council just approved the plan for ConnectTO on Friday and it is already a failure, having lost sight of its mission before it even got started.

In presenting its plan for “Affordable Internet Connectivity for All”, the proponents for ConnectTO lined up representatives from ACORN Canada, a community union of low and moderate income people, who passionately argued “The programs need to be put in place now, not tomorrow. Now.”

The plan approved by Toronto’s City Council won’t do a thing now, tomorrow, next month or even this summer. It isn’t even clear that it will deliver on ACORN’s needs when it is launched sometime late this year or in 2022. Or ever for that matter.

The problem is that Toronto is trying to fit a technology solution into a problem that isn’t technical.

During the council meeting this past Friday, Councillor James Pasternak asked a direct question: “A few years ago many of our neighbourhoods that were torn up by Bell Canada, maybe Rogers as well. Are we targeting neighbourhoods that were excluded from those private sector fibre optic investments?”

If you watch the video, you will see Toronto’s Chief Technology Officer, Lawrence Eta, seeming somewhat evasive in providing a direct answer. It should have been an easy answer, something along the lines of, “Councillor Pasternak, Toronto is blessed with having some of the world’s fastest internet speeds and virtually every residential address in the city has access to multiple broadband service providers.” The city was told that by a 2017 study: “CRTC-defined broadband speeds are technically available to all households in Toronto.”

The issue with connectivity isn’t a lack of fibre or wireless or cabling. The city of Toronto has lots of accessible connectivity.

Like many urban centres, the issue that leads to a digital connectivity gap is one of adoption, not access. Building networks won’t fix adoption. To fix adoption we have to have a better understanding of the factors that keep certain communities from getting online.

We know it isn’t just a matter of price. Toronto actually learned that from a report cited in support for its plan. That report told the City that of those without an internet connection, only “half are not connected due to the cost.” The report also told them vulnerable communities needed more access to computers and mobile devices. Unfortunately, the report surveyed such a small sample of people without an internet connection that many other factors were missed, or unreported, such as building trust, getting training in basic skills, understanding the value of being online, and developing more advanced digital literacy, among many more.

These factors were not addressed. Toronto’s plan won’t deliver a solution for ACORN members who wanted a program in place now. Not tomorrow. Now.

For more than a decade, a number of people and companies have been looking at the challenges and trying to develop a number of solutions for the urban digital divide. Such groups should be engaged before Toronto continues down the current path. It was notable to see my skepticism echoed by commentators as feeling “like magical thinking” in Christine Dobby’s story in the Toronto Star. The Star article cites the community network in Olds, Alberta, but doesn’t mention that the lowest price service offered there costs $90 per month. The municipality is also trying to get its $14 million loan repaid. Community networks may be effective in filling in gaps in connectivity, but that is not Toronto’s problem.

Not only am I concerned that ConnectTO isn’t the right answer; it isn’t clear to me that Toronto has even started asking the right questions.

A fresh new look

I’ve had my website ( for nearly 25 years and this blog site is about to celebrate its 15th anniversary.

It was time for a bit of a refresher, including improvements to readability on mobile devices. When I started consulting, there was no such thing as a mobile web and I just had never taken the time to do an update. For that, I apologize to you, my readers.

So, welcome to the new look. I hope you will keep coming back. A new look, but I’ll still be sharing my perspectives on trends in telecommunications through a Canadian lens. I’m proud to be listed in the top telecom blogs in the world and having been recognized by itWorld Canada: “No one does a better job of exploring, interpreting or criticizing telecommunications policy in Canada. Period.”

Thank you for your patience putting up with the old website. I’ll try not to let it go another 25 years before the next refresh.

Take a look around the new blog layout and my main webpage and let me know what you think of the changes.

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Better data leads to better decisions

Earlier this week, Statistics Canada launched a new portal for data about Canada’s telecommunications sector, with a wealth of insights that should contribute to a far better understanding of the state of the industry by regulators and policy makers.

The portal currently highlights a few interesting datapoints, such as:

  • Consumer prices for cellular services decreased by just under 15% in December 2020 compared to December 2019
  • Capital investment by the wired and wireless telecom sector was just under $10B in 2018
  • In 2018, over half of Canadians used their smartphones for e-banking, 44% for online shopping, and a third for streaming
  • In 2019, 105,000 people worked in telecommunications, earning an average of about $66,000 for a total payroll of just under $7B

It is great to see Canada’s official government statistical agency invest additional resources into helping us improve our understanding of the underpinnings of the digital economy. Frequent readers will recognize that I have frequently written about the need for more data (such as here, here, here, here, and here).

In the past, I have asked “How is Canada supposed to be engaged in evidence-based policy making when there is so little information being gathered about who is online, how Canadians are using the internet and perhaps most importantly, who isn’t online yet and why not?”

What else would you want to see?

Better data leads to better quality decision making by regulators and policy makers. Statistics Canada new telecommunications portal is a welcome contribution to inform a fact-based discussion of issues.

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