Martin Regg Cohn and the mystery of the empty classrooms (Armchair quarterback edition)

In this morning’s Toronto Star, columnist Martin Regg Cohn presents us with a puzzler about the pandemic issue of the moment, university students and online teaching:

How to explain the incongruity of packing thousands of students into university dorms — with shared cafeteria meals (no masks) and shared showers (no clothes) — only to refuse them entry into classrooms on the pretext that professors might feel too close for comfort?

Regg Cohn blames this incongruity mostly on university administrations, for being slaves to “institutional inertia” and not bringing online courses back into the classroom once “provincial authorities gave the green light” in August for universities to allow students and faculty on campus, even as they allow students to live in residence. He also has a few choice words for us “aloof” university professors and our faculty associations for failing to get everyone back to in-person learning right this moment, at a time when the rest of society is mostly open and daily infection rates are relatively low.

Online teaching sucks

As a university professor at an Ontario university (Brock), please believe me when I say that I would like nothing more than to be back teaching in the classroom. Online teaching straight-up sucks. It can leave students adrift: last year a shocking number of my second-year students just didn’t bother to hand in their major end-of-term assignment. Our department’s teaching assistants reported similar difficulties in engaging students in their seminars. Zoom fatigue is real: teaching online is exhausting on a level I’d never imagined possible.

Most disturbingly, our graduate student teaching assistants reported problems with undergraduate students acting aggressively toward them in email communications. They attributed this behaviour in part to a lack of face-to-face interaction, since their students weren’t required to turn on their cameras. Unsurprisingly, our women TAs, themselves students in our Master’s program, bore the brunt of this abusive behaviour.

(Incidentally, improving the learning experience and making the online classroom more humane for everyone is one reason why, as Regg Cohn dismissively puts it, “professors can be heard hectoring and lecturing discouraged students to turn on their Zoom cameras, rather than logging on with a disembodied avatar.”)

Teaching online sucks. This whole pandemic sucks. Nobody – students, teachers, administrators – is having a good three years. Nothing about our current situation – nothing – is ideal.

Monday morning quarterbacking

So while I get Regg Cohn’s inchoate anger about this whole situation, his whole column smacks of lazy Monday morning armchair quarterbacking.

Regg Cohn’s entire argument can be boiled down to, “It’s late November, the government gave permission for universities to open up as cases were trending downward, and a big Fall wave didn’t materialize, so universities should’ve opened up.”

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

Predicting the future

Why are so many classes online now and why does it vary from university to university, when the pandemic, for the moment, seems to be receding? Three reasons:

First, back in May 2021, when we were planning the upcoming school year, none of us had any way to know what the Fall COVID season would look like.

Back in May, the Delta variant had yet to be named. Access to vaccines wasn’t yet open to everyone, and the federal government was still signalling that everyone who wanted a vaccine would be fully vaxxed by September. Given the two weeks needed for the vaccine to kick in, this would have meant immunity by mid-October. Right there, that’s half of your Fall term with less-than-full protection.

Also in May, the complete insanity of the anti-vaxx movement in Canada wasn’t yet on full display. And in the previous month, parents across the province rose as one to protest Doug Ford’s ridiculous, panicky attempt to close the province’s playgrounds, and also to give police so much power that even the police objected.

That was the context in which we were making decisions about how to teach in 2021-22. Those of us who moved our classes online are not “aloof”: we’re doing our very best to keep our students and ourselves safe, based on the information we have in front of us. Some people, programs, and universities chose in-person, others chose online, based on a combination of pandemic-related health concerns, an overwhelming desire to get back to the classroom, and – for administrators – budgetary concerns (on which more below).

Also, and Regg Cohn might be unaware of this, but faculty associations like Brock’s had to put enormous pressure on our university administrators to get them to implement the vaccine mandates that have made our campuses safe for his child, well ahead of the eventual Provincial directive. Even after Seneca first announced their vaccine mandate, university administrations mostly had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing. And even these mandates were not always as tight as they could’ve been, with some universities opting initially for attestation over proof of vaccination. This wasn’t the province acting to keep your child safe. It was university faculty associations and, eventually, university administrations. The Province was the last to the party.

Despite the underlying sense in Regg Cohn’s column that the pandemic is pretty much over and we can now get back to normal, the pandemic is very much still on, and this uncertainty still exists. Winter’s coming, and we’re going to be spending a lot of time in closed classrooms, facing a highly contagious airborne disease, with a still-substantial unvaccinated population. How many students and faculty do you know with underlying health issues that even now make them vulnerable to COVID? Should we throw them under the bus in the rush to get back to in-person learning in the midst of a pandemic? Whether or not to teach online isn’t the clear-cut issue Regg Cohn makes it out to be.

Full disclosure: knowing what we know now about how the pandemic has progressed, I would’ve taught in-person this semester. But if I were able to decide today how to deliver my Winter 2022 course, I’d take it online for the simple reason that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and I can’t predict the future. I don’t want one of my students, or myself, to be the last person to catch COVID during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, I understand that in at least one university, instructors won’t be able to ask students to mask up or to confirm any medical exemptions. I look forward to Regg Cohn’s late-January follow-up column.

Changes are easier to make when you’re not the one making them

Second, regardless of what Regg Cohn thinks of universities’ ability to move classes on a dime, it’s a real challenge to schedule thousands of classes for tens of thousands of students, both in terms of when they’re going to take place and where. At Brock, we had to make our final timetable and mode-of-delivery (online, in-person, hybrid) decisions in May.

For my part, because I assumed the pandemic would be winding down about now (ah, the innocent pre-Delta days), I asked to teach online in the Fall and in-person in the Winter.

At any rate, redoing these schedules in August, a week before the school term begins is, to be frank, an insane demand. Let alone once the school year’s begun.

And not just for administrators, but for teachers and students. I’ve tried to keep my lesson plans simple in the pandemic age, but for other professors, moving an online class offline would require completely revamping their entire teaching plan at the last second.

As annoying as this might be for teachers, it’s equally problematic for students. Students like, and deserve, to know what they’re getting into when they sign up for a course, and a big part of that is how the course will be delivered. This is why I only make in-course changes if it’s absolutely necessary, and only ever in a way that advantages all students. Students plan a large part of their lives around their course schedules, and any changes, no matter how popular with some students, will inconvenience others.

The Ford government doesn’t inspire confidence

Third, to be blunt, the Ford government has a terrible, terrible, terrible track record when it comes to sound COVID policy. So, why would anyone think that “well, the Ford government is opening up the economy, so things are probably okay” clinches any pandemic argument?

Remember the whole playgrounds and police powers thing?

Even when the Ford government gets it right, they get it wrong, doing the right thing weeks or months after they should’ve done it. They move only after the damage has begun to mount. We might be about the see the latest example of this destructive tendency with their lackadaisical approach to third shots.

This is not, in short, a government that deserves anyone’s trust around pandemic policy. They’ve consistently opened the province too early and instituted sane mitigation measures too late. They’ve pandered to anti-vaxxers rather than respecting the rights of the vast majority of Ontarians to be able to move freely without fear of contracting COVID. They waited until the last second to announce how a university system with hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of workers should run in the Fall.

So you might understand why I don’t take Ford allowing universities to open up without social distancing as a sign that Ontario universities got online teaching wrong.

(Also, universities are mostly self-governing institutions, so it’s really not a surprise that different universities would take different approaches to dealing with the pandemic.)

All this is to say that online classes have persisted due to a mix of uncertainty, the bureaucratic and personal difficulties associated with upending an entire semester at the very last second, and the utter incompetence of the Ford government.

Is this ideal? Not in any way. Is it understandable? I think so. Given these limitations, if you were a teacher or university administrator, would you have acted any differently?

Packed residences: It’s all about budgets and survival

Things get really interesting with the mystery of the packed residences next to unoccupied classes. Regg Cohn blames bureaucratic inertia for this incongruous state of affairs. But it really comes down to money and a survival instinct.

I don’t know what it’s like at other universities, but when my school, Brock University, did the right thing last year and closed the campus, they also blew out their budget. Residences, food services, and parking fees account for a substantial amount of the university’s revenues. With those ancillary fees gone, Brock ended up running a deficit of millions of dollars.

Now, imagine you’re a Brock administrator in May 2021. You don’t know what the pandemic holds for Ontario in November 2021, but you do know that it would be tempting fate to run another monstrous deficit. You’re facing a provincial government that just let an Ontario university go bankrupt and that, two years previously, cut tuition fees by 10%, effectively reducing your overall budget. In these circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to wonder how the government would treat your university should you continue to hemorrhage money.

You have no way of knowing if the pandemic will get worse or better. But in addition to the pandemic, you’re also facing an existential threat that could be held at bay if you can get students enrolled and have faculty, staff, and students back on campus. Such situations can lend themselves to wishful thinking, or, put more positively, hoping for the best.

And so we end up in November 2021, with full residences and half-empty classrooms.

I’m much more understanding than Regg Cohn is of the choices university administrators have made with respect to residences. They’re not just responding to the pandemic or acting like a bunch of isolated bureaucrats: they’re trying to manage a dual financial and health crisis in the context of a government that is incompetent when it comes to health policy and actively hostile with respect to post-secondary education.

Again, is this an ideal situation? Not in any way, shape, or form.

Are “aloof” university professors to blame? Only to the extent that we lack Regg Cohn’s prescience.

Are befuddled, inert university bureaucrats to blame? I doubt you’d act much differently in their shoes.

If Regg Cohn is really interested in the effect of the pandemic on universities, he might want to think a bit more deeply about this wider context. And to remember that this pandemic isn’t over, and that none of us can predict the future.

Posted in covid-19, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Not much of a consultation, not much of a plan: Our submission regarding the federal government’s proposed approach to addressing harmful content online

Natasha Tusikov (Assistant Professor of Criminology, York University) and I have submitted the following to the federal government regarding their proposal to regulate harmful (or, more accurately, illegal) content online.

The tl;dr: We’re very much in favour of democratic government regulation of the digital space, but this proposal seems thrown together. It’s basically a list of legislative and procedural bullet points handed down from on high, with no evidence or explanations provided outlining the scope of the problems or justifying the proposed solutions. We need actual consultations before we can get to a (properly justified) plan.

It ignores the structural aspects (i.e., the business model) that drive for-profit social media companies’ anti-social behaviour. We also highlight the importance of regulating online companies’ activities generally, not just with respect to speech. Finally, we question whether the government currently has the capacity to assess and regulate the digital sphere, and call on the government to re-institute an Economic Council of Canada-type organization, and to reform the relevant regulatory institutions along the lines of Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission.

Our analysis is based on the work on internet and knowledge governance that we’ve been undertaking for the past several years, which we’ve also been sharing via opeds, most recently in this threepart series, with CIGI, on resetting Canada’s digital-regulation agenda.

Consultation on Proposed Approach to Address Harmful Content Online
Submission by Dr. Natasha Tusikov (York University) and
Dr. Blayne Haggart (Brock University)
24 September 2021

We are writing this submission in our capacity of academics who have researched and written extensively in the areas of platform and internet regulation.

Natasha Tusikov is an Assistant Professor of Criminology at York University. Her book, Chokepoints: Global Private Regulation on the Internet, deals directly with internet companies’ efforts to police illegal and harmful content and activities by their users. She is a research fellow with the Justice and Technoscience Lab (JusTech Lab), School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University. She has also published scholarly research and opeds in the areas of internet governance, the Internet of Things, smart cities and data governance, and regulating hate speech on social media. Before obtaining her PhD at the Australian National University, she was a strategic criminal intelligence analyst and researcher at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Ottawa.

Blayne Haggart is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brock University and a Senior Fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). He is the author most recently of “Democratic Legitimacy in Platform Governance” (Telecommunications Policy 45, no. 6 (2021), with Clara Iglesias Keller) and “Global platform governance and the internet-governance impossibility theorem” (Journal of Digital Media & Policy 11, no. 3 (2020)).

Together we are co-editors (with Prof. Jan Aart Scholte) of the 2021 edited volume, Power and Authority in Internet Governance: Return of the State? (Routledge).We have also published several opeds on the regulation of the digital sphere in The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Conversation and through the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

We are strongly in favour of government regulation of internet intermediaries and the goal of creating an online environment that is more conducive to socially healthy exchanges. The primary issue when it comes to internet intermediaries is not, should they be regulated by government, but how should government regulate them. However, we have significant substantive and procedural concerns with the government’s proposed approach to address harmful content online. In this note we highlight four in particular:

  1. The presentation of a detailed fait accompli before engaging in meaningful, substantive public consultations;
  2. The lack of evidence presented explaining and justifying these particular interventions;
  3. Its ineffectiveness in addressing fundamental structural problems with social media that give rise to the problems the government says it wants to address.
  4. The focus on regulating social media companies overlooks the necessity of regulating the broader digital economy, including online marketplaces and the financial technology industry. 

Based on these concerns, which we outline below, we call on the government:

  1. To undertake substantive, open consultations to determine how Canada should address these and other related issues.
  2. To present research and evidence outlining the problems being addressed and justifying the government’s chosen approach.
  3. To pursue a regulatory framework that involves structural reforms to address incentives baked into social media companies’ advertising-dependent and data-fuelled business models.
  4. To consider deep institutional reforms to regulate the digital economy, including regulation to address monopolistic behaviour and institutional reforms to strengthen and promote in-house digital policymaking expertise.

We address each of these in turn.

1) Lack of consultation

Most fundamentally, the government has presented Canadians with a whole-cloth policy proposal without first engaging in consultations with Canadians to determine the best way to proceed with regulating online illegal content. This approach is not in keeping with best practices in government policymaking. Instead, it is obvious that the government has looked to other countries for ideas about what we should do here. For example, the requirement that internet intermediaries make content found to be harmful/illegal inaccessible within 24 hours is clearly borrowed from the German NetzDG regime, while the exclusive focus on illegal content (terrorist content, content that incites violence, hate speech, revenge porn and child sexual exploitation) seems to reflect critiques that the UK Online Harms legislation’s focus on illegal and harmful speech may unnecessarily stifle legal (if distasteful) speech.

While one of the advantages of being a laggard when it comes to online intermediary regulation is that we can learn from the experiences of other countries, such policies need to be considered and justified in the Canadian context. This includes considering how we could improve on other countries’ experiences. Internet intermediary regulation, and regulation generally, is not a matter of plug-and-play.

By presenting Canadians with the answer rather than the question, the government is pre-empting the necessary conversation over how these companies should be regulated.

We also note that both the German and UK approaches, which have so obviously inspired the Canadian proposal, were themselves the outcomes of extensive consultative and legislative processes. In particular, the UK Online Safety Bill currently before the UK Parliament was the product of years of consultations beginning in 2017, including a White Paper. The consultation process for the Online Harms White Paper (document here), for example, consisted of 19 questions, including several open-ended ones.

One of the upsides of the UK’s extensive consultations and reporting is that although opposition to it exists (and will continue to exist), nobody can say they’ve been taken by surprise by the resulting legislation, or that it hasn’t been properly considered. Conversely, one of the major downsides of the Canadian proposal is that it reads like a hastily assembled grab-bag of ideas that other countries have implemented, rather than something that has been subject to sound vetting by policy experts and interested Canadians.

Internet intermediaries need to be regulated by government. However, it’s not enough just to do something; we also need to get the legislation right. This requires a much more open and thoughtful process than what the government has put in place. Rather than start with one specific, intricate solution, Canadians and the government need to start with the issue itself, and various options, before settling on one. The UK Online Harms consultation process provides one model in this regard. Another, as we discuss in the context of smart-city regulation, is Brazil’s two-step consultation process leading to its pathbreaking internet bill of rights legislation (Marco Civil): Hold consultations designed as a structured conversation addressing issues of concern; then consult on a specific draft plan.

Recommendation 1

That the federal government scrap the current proposal and engage in actual, two-step consultations with Canadians to address online internet intermediaries’ socially harmful behaviours.

2) Lack of evidence presented

Neither the government’s Discussion Guide nor its Technical paper contain any contextual information or links to research that would allow an interested Canadian or non-expert to understand the nature of the problems being regulated or the implications of the government’s proposed solution. Instead, these documents offer only a highly detailed, legalistic description of several interlocking processes and policies whose implications will be lost on anyone without a deep, technical understanding of the machinery of government and a pre-existing knowledge of the issue areas in question. There is nothing in here to educate Canadians regarding the policies and issues at play.

For example, child sexual exploitation is obviously anathema to any society. However, neither the Discussion Guide nor the government’s Technical Paper contain any information contextualizing either the problem or the proposed solution. Most obviously, the possession and distribution of child sexual abuse images are already illegal. Internet intermediaries already do not allow this material on their services. What is the extent of this problem on, say, Facebook? Our point isn’t that the existence of this illegal content on Facebook isn’t a problem – it very may well be, and if it is, the government should definitely take action. Rather, it is to highlight that both documents fail to even discuss the scope of the problems and how they relate to internet intermediaries. Nothing has been presented to Canadians to justify why these particular issues have been selected and packaged together, and why this particular approach has been proposed. We address some of what’s not covered in this proposal in Points 3 and 4.

The UK Online Harms White Paper offers a sobering contrast to the informational wasteland the government is offering Canadians. It is replete with links to surveys, examples, and other reports – to evidence – contextualizing and justifying its decisions. To its credit, it also indicates (as in Box 29 discussing AI and hate speech) where they still lack a full understanding of the issues and require more research. Nothing in the two documents the government is presenting to Canadians, meanwhile, even tries to justify the government’s response. These are not discussion documents; they’re legislative bullet points that have the practical effect of shutting most Canadians out of this important discussion.

Again, we point to both the UK Online Harms and the Brazilian Marco Civil policy processes as examples for the government to follow. Unlike the Canadian case, both processes were designed to educate citizens about the issues (Brazil’s case explicitly so), not just to present a detailed solution from on high.

No matter how serious the problems being addressed, you still have to explain your proposals. In this case, the government has not even attempted to do so. If the government is interested in pursuing sound, effective, evidence-based internet-regulation policy, it must explain the problem and justify its proposal.

Recommendation 2

That, as part of a revamped consultation process, the government present to Canadians properly researched explanations and justifications explaining the nature of the problems being addressed and why these specific solutions are being proposed.

3) Inadequate consideration of fundamental structural problems

The government’s discussion paper proposes to impose an obligation on regulated entities to monitor their systems for the categories of harmful content, including by establishing flagging, notice, and appeal systems and using automated systems.

This approach effectively asks social media companies to continue their already existing flagging programs. Moreover, these programs are too-often troubled by significant problems with inaccurate or abusive flagging, or are unduly reliant on users’ policing problematic content. The discussion paper also seems to assume that the imposition of fines will encourage platforms to remove problematic content. However, these global companies have shrugged off massive fines in the United States and Europe.

The core problem with this approach is that calling for more flagging systems simply feeds into these companies’ existing reliance on automation and their preference for self-regulation, which are central features of social media companies’ business model. Social media companies minimize costs by automating many activities, and outsourcing the human component of their content-moderation systems to low-paid, often foreign, workers, a pattern similar to the labour offshoring that countless industries have engaged in for decades.

Regulation of social media — indeed, regulation of any online content and services — must begin with an understanding of the business models and, more broadly, the assumptions underlying the digital economy. Social media companies, which make most of their money via advertising, have business models designed to maximize user engagement and to promote viral content. Given their commercial reliance on user engagement as a growth metric, companies are often reluctant to enact measures that deal with bad actors, such as ridding their systems of bots and fake accounts, or setting rules that may limit viral content. Spreading harmful content can be a profitable activity for both platforms and users. During the pandemic, people have profited from pushing fake cures and medical conspiracy theories.

To address this structural problem, there must be structural reforms to social media companies’ business models. In short, governments must consider reforming advertising as a revenue source, with the goal of minimizing social media companies’ reliance on user engagement as a growth metric. Advertising is not the only way that a company can make money. Companies could generate revenues from subscriptions like Netflix or governments could provide funding in the form of nationalizing social media services as public goods. Governments could also get more involved in regulating social media companies’ algorithms so that they respond to democratically determined priorities, rather than reflecting the profit-driven motives of foreign companies.

Recommendation 3

Regulation must entail structural reforms to address and counter negative incentives baked into social media companies’ advertising-dependent and data-fuelled business models.

4) Broader regulation of the digital economy

When it comes to platform regulation, a disproportionate amount of scholarly and public debate focuses on a few social media companies. Along with legislation that addresses the problematic business models of social media companies, the government needs to consider effective regulation of other areas of the digital economy such as competition policy and consumer welfare.

Government action to limit monopolistic online companies is vitally important because of the sheer scope and power of the handful of mostly American companies that dominate the provision of services online. Amazon, in particular, raises monopoly concerns in its dual role as marketplace operator and merchant. As an operator, Amazon is in an unrivalled position to privilege its products and control prices, while as a merchant, it can siphon data from its business rivals to create and push its Amazon-branded products. Similar problems of anti-competitive behaviour are evident in Apple and Google’s duopoly of mobile operating systems and app stores.

One solution to this monopoly problem is a structural separation that would prohibit dominant actors from directly competing with the businesses reliant on their services. Structural separation would not allow search engines, social media, app stores or marketplaces to operate those services and compete directly with third-party businesses reliant upon those services, as is being proposed now in the United States in a suite of antitrust bills.

Another digital sector in vital need of reform are online payment providers. As Dr. Tusikov has argued elsewhere, given the concentration of the online payment industry, payment providers wield significant power to determine what content and services they approve for payment, in what can be called “revenue chokepoints.” Payment providers exert a form of what international political economy scholar Susan Strange called “structural power”: the ability to set the rules under which others operate. Payment providers’ structural power is evident in their decade-long war on sex on the internet in which payment providers, especially those headquartered in the United States and with global operations, have a pattern of denying financial services to people and businesses involved in publishing legal sexual content.

Alongside monopoly problems in the digital economy is the growing role of technology companies such as Apple and Google providing financial services (i.e., fintech), as well as the increasing popularity of cryptocurrencies. To reign in this structural power and to provide effective regulation over the rapidly evolving financial technology (ie., fintech) sector, Canada could follow the lead of the Australian government. Australia has undertaken a parliamentary review of mobile payments and digital wallet services, and a Treasury-commissioned review (the so-called Farrell Report) of the payment system.

One of the Farrell Report’s key recommendations, among those to strengthen licensing and competition requirements, tackles directly another key issue in digital economic governance: platform exceptionalism. Platform exceptionalism contends that services delivered online or via an app should be treated differently than the same services delivered offline (for example, Uber and taxis, or Airbnb and hotels). The Farrell Report calls on Australian regulators to set rules based on the nature of the service, not on the entity providing the service. Under this rule, platforms providing payment services would not be treated differently than traditional financial institutions offering the same services. Simply put, the claim of “platform” would no longer be a perceived or actual regulatory advantage.

As we set out in a three-part series on regulating the online economy for the Centre for International Governance Innovation, what’s needed is a concerted, institutional response to consider deep institutional reforms to regulate the digital economy in the Canadian public’s interest.

We have two suggestions. First, create a successor to the Economic Council of Canada to provide in-house advice to the government of the day on novel economic and social issues. Elsewhere, we and others, chiefly Jim Balsillie, founder and chair of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, have called for such a governmental institute focused on applied policy issues, including the economic and social challenges of a digital/datafied society. The government needs highly qualified, expert in-house analysts to help set policy and evaluate outside advice with an eye to promoting policy in the national interest.

Second, and more importantly, the next government needs to reinvigorate its own bureaucracy to deal with the challenges of the twenty-first century. They could start by reforming or replacing the Competition Bureau, and its enabling laws, with an agency and legislative framework modelled on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). The ACCC has been at the forefront of mid-sized countries’ attempts to regulate the digital economy, including social media companies. Canada also hasn’t had a dedicated consumer protection agency or industry for decades now — another point we can borrow from the ACCC.

Recommendation 4

The government needs to consider deep institutional reforms to the digital economy, including regulation to address monopolistic behaviour and institutional reforms to strengthen and promote in-house digital policymaking expertise.

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Unexpected Outcomes of an Unwanted Election: Notes from the Fourth Wave

To give you an indication about how unusual the Great Unwanted Federal Election of 2021 has been, on the weekend here in St. Catharines, Ontario, I passed by an auto shop with a purple People’s Party of Canada sign in front.

My immediate reaction: this is a bad sign, and not just because the PPC is a reprehensible anti-immigrant, climate-change-denying, anti-vaxxer far-right outfit whose members are not above engaging in violence. There’s a reason why most businesses don’t post campaign signs in their windows. Basic common sense suggests it’s a bad idea to turn off the majority of your customer base who don’t agree with your political leanings.

So when I see a business, whose continued existence depends on attracting and keeping customers, commit so openly to an extremist party, I’m going to get a bit concerned about what that means for the institutionalization of hate and extremism in Canada. Especially with the PPC polling far above the 1.6% they scrounged up in 2019.

What these numbers actually mean for Canadian political and social stability will be determined by the outcome of today’s election and how the Canadian political and media establishments react to it – particularly the lessons that the Conservative Party of Canada takes away from it.

But we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the big reason why the PPC has become a problem at all is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to call an unnecessary and unwanted election in the middle of a pandemic. In doing so, Trudeau created the opportunity for a tiny, extreme right-wing fringe to piggyback on a significant anti-vaxxer/anti-lockdown movement that could end up being with us for a very long time.

Follow the Order of Operations

Like so much of what has happened in Canada and elsewhere in the past two years, this unforced error was the result of a failure to understand how pandemic politics and economics work. These politics are neither complicated nor novel. As I wrote almost a year ago, there is an order of operations that governments need to follow when dealing with the pandemic: If you (1) do everything you can to stop the disease from spreading (health), you will (2) minimize economic disruption, and (3) be politically rewarded for it.

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it: everything we know about COVID-19 tells us that, for once, the ethical thing to do (saving lives) is also the smart political and economic move. Which is why it’s been so surprising that so few politicians from Quebec westward have realized this simple equation. Similarly, it’s not surprising that politicians who put either the economy or partisan calculations ahead of dealing with the pandemic have ended up presiding over spectacular failures.

Politically, the damage from pretending that the pandemic is over can be a hit to one’s approval rating or, in the case of a federal election, providing the opportunity for the solidification of an extreme-right movement where there was previously a laughable rump.

This brings us to the reason why it was such a stupid idea to call an election before the pandemic was over. Basically, while voters tend to like the outcome of strong anti-pandemic measures (à la New Zealand), they do not like actually living through them. Even businesses, who have a material interest in ending the pandemic as soon as possible, have spent much of the past year individually arguing for exemptions to medically necessary lockdowns. These reactions are short-sighted but unsurprising.

However, this disgruntlement wouldn’t have been muchy of a problem had Trudeau called the election after the pandemic was in hand for a simple reason: We know that COVID mitigation measures work, and nothing succeeds like success. Calling for an end to lockdowns is a less-potent rallying cry when there is no longer a need for lockdowns.

In calling an unnecessary election in the middle of the pandemic, Trudeau has given this extremist hard core an opportunity to legitimize itself with a larger number of these disgruntled Canadians whose visceral opposition would have melted away as society returned to a semblance of normalcy.

This opportunity, furthermore, has been reinforced by non-Atlantic provinces’ kid-gloves approach to the anti-vaxxer movement (our performative kindness-and-understanding approach stands in stark contrast to Australia, where they’ve actually taken the pandemic seriously) and general attempts to place the economy above the pandemic. Taken together, they could potentially affect the balance of power in Canadian politics for the coming decade. Parties have to get their votes from somewhere, and the temptation for Conservative politicians to appeal to this extreme right could be significant. This is not good news for Canada: the last thing we need is for our Conservative establishment to be dragged toward the Trumpist right.

The sad irony of all this is that Canada (or parts of it) has actually figured out the winning formula for dealing with COVID: strong, consistent public-health measures and vaccines, lots of them.

The Atlantic provinces have kept life there relatively normal by treating the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved. It’s telling that newly elected Nova Scotia Premier, Progressive Conservative Tim Houston, ran on strengthening the province’s health care system. (Order of operations: deal with the pandemic first.) Too bad nobody in the rest of Canada even tried to take lessons from them.

Most disappointingly, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were actually doing a pretty good job in following the order of operations. They didn’t get into any political fights with the provinces, unlike Australia, which has a similar system to ours. Most importantly, their enormous bet in favour of getting Canada access to as many vaccines that we could use (and more) paid off handsomely. They didn’t get everything right (such as international travel and quarantine) and the COVID Alert App proved to be a failure, as some people (ahem) predicted it would, but they got the big things right.

But then Trudeau decided to place his desire for a Liberal majority ahead of dealing with the pandemic. He didn’t follow the order of operations. Here’s hoping that Canada doesn’t pay too high a price for his hubristic miscalculation.

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Newish edited volume: Power and Authority in Internet Governance: Return of the State?

(finally getting around to noting my recent publications)

My edited volume (co-edited with Natasha Tusikov and Jan Aart Scholte) is now out, via Routledge. It focuses on the question of the state role in internet regulation from three perspectives: global internet governance; internet governance in authoritarian countries; and internet governance in democratic countries. As you’ll see from our table of contents, we were fortunate to draw on the talents of some very insightful internet scholars from around the world. Please do check it out.

Book description:

Power and Authority in Internet Governance investigates the hotly contested role of the state in today’s digital society. The book asks: Is the state “back” in internet regulation? If so, what forms are state involvement taking, and with what consequences for the future?

The volume includes case studies from across the world and addresses a wide range of issues regarding internet infrastructure, data and content. The book pushes the debate beyond a simplistic dichotomy between liberalism and authoritarianism in order to consider also greater state involvement based on values of democracy and human rights. Seeing internet governance as a complex arena where power is contested among diverse non-state and state actors across local, national, regional and global scales, the book offers a critical and nuanced discussion of how the internet is governed – and how it should be governed.

Power and Authority in Internet Governance provides an important resource for researchers across international relations, global governance, science and technology studies and law as well as policymakers and analysts concerned with regulating the global internet.

Table of contents:

Introduction: Return of the State?, Blayne Haggart, Jan Aart Scholte, Natasha Tusikov 

Part 1: Global Internet Governance: The Bird’s Eye View 

Chapter 1: From Governance Denial to State Regulation: A Controversy-Based Typology of Internet Governance Models, Mauro Santaniello  

Chapter 2: The Role of States in Internet Governance at ICANN, Olga Cavalli and Jan Aart Scholte 

Chapter 3: The Metagovernance of Internet Governance, Niels ten Oever 

Chapter 4: The Data-Driven Economy and the Role of the State, Dan Ciuriak and Maria Ptashkina 

Part 2: Internet Governance and Authoritarian States 

Chapter 5: Building China’s Tech Superpower: State, Domestic Champions and Foreign Capital, Lianrui Jia 

Chapter 6: “Nine Dragons Run the Water”: Fragmented Internet Governance in China, Ting Luo, Aofei Lv 

Chapter 7: Russia: An Independent and Sovereign Internet?, Ilona Stadnik 

Part 3: Internet Governance and Democratic States 

Chapter 8: The Return of the State? Power and Legitimacy Challenges to EU’s regulation of Online Disinformation, Julia Rone 

Chapter 9: Varieties of Digital Capitalism and the role of the state in Internet governance: A view from Latin America, Jean-Marie Chenou 

Chapter 10: Seeing through the Smart City Narrative: Data Governance, Power Relations, and Regulatory Challenges in Brazil, Jhessica Reia, Luã Fergus Cruz 

Conclusion: State Power (and Its Limits) in Internet Governance, Natasha Tusikov, Blayne Haggart, Jan Aart Scholte

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Newish article: Democratic Legitimacy in Global Platform Governance

A recently published article of mine in Telecommunications Policy, with Clara Iglesias Keller. It’s Open Access, so please do check it out.

It’s part of an excellent special issue on Norm entrepreneurship in internet governance, edited by by Roxana Radu, Matthias C. Kettemann, Trisha Meyer and Jamal Shahin. The other articles are definitely worth checking out

Abstract: The goal of this paper is to propose a democratic legitimacy framework for evaluating platform-goverance proposals, and in doing so clarify terms of debate in this area, allowing for more nuanced policy assessments. It applies a democratic legitimacy framework originally created to assess the European Union’s democratic bona fides – Vivian Schmidt’s (2013) modification of Scharpf’s (1999) well-known taxonomy of forms of democratic legitimacy – to various representative platform governance proposals and policies. The first section discusses briefly the issue of legitimacy in internet and platform governance, while the second outlines our analytical framework. The second section describes the three forms of legitimacy that, according to this framework, are necessary for democratic legitimation: input, throughput and output legitimacy.

The third section demonstrates our framework’s utility by applying it to four paradigmatic proposals/regimes: Facebook’s Oversight Board (self-governance regimes); adjudication-focused proposals such as the Manila Principles for Intermediary Liability (rule-of-law-focused regimes); the human-rights-focused framework proposed by then-UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the United Kingdom’s Online Harms White Paper (domestic regime). Section four describes our four main findings regarding the case studies: non-state proposals seem to focus on throughput legitimacy; input legitimacy requirements are frequently under examined; state regulation is usually side-lined as a policy option; and output legitimacy is a limited standard to be adopted in supranational contexts. We conclude that only by considering legitimacy as a multifaceted phenomenon based in democratic accountability will it be possible to design platform-governance models that will not only stand the test of time, but will also be accepted by the people whose lives they affect.

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