Daniel Joseph is a freelance writer and post doctoral fellow in the department of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Toronto Scarborough. You can follow him on Twitter.
Net neutrality is officially dead in most of the United States, and US-based Facebook is currently shaking off a massive data-abuse scandal. These are morbid symptoms of American capitalism in digital communication, and it’s hard not to be cynical about the future of the internet. But it didn’t have to end up this way.
In early 1970s some of the brightest minds in Canada conceived of a national computer network that, if it ever came to fruition, could have sidestepped some of the problems with today’s internet. At the very least, it shows that another kind of internet was, and remains, possible.
While America’s ARPANET program was creating a forerunner to today’s internet by networking military and academic computers with funding from the Department of Defense, Canada wanted to build its own nationwide system of networked computers that linked the country’s most powerful research computers—based at various universities—with the personal computers of casual users. The “Trans-Canada Computer Communications Network” (TCCN) was envisioned as a system that didn’t rely on America and wasn’t beholden to its whims.
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TCCN’s planned usage in the everyday life of Canadians was forward-looking. “A Trans-Canada Computer Communications Network,” a report published by the Science Council of Canada in August 1971, describes an engineer in Regina using TCCN to draw on “a conversational computing service in Saskatoon for rapid design calculations using pre-stored procedures; b) a data bank in Vancouver for design data and specifications; and c) an ‘electronic catalogue’ in Toronto for the latest prices of materials. All in the course of a morning’s work.”
The 1971 report suggests that the Canadian network would be managed as a federated system, with a single “national spine” that linked together various regional networks that were tailored to and managed by the regions themselves, presumably provinces or territories. The council recommended that the national spine be owned by a single organization, either a government-owned company—similar to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or the United States Postal Service—or a public-private partnership.
This vision was in keeping with the general mood of liberalism in the 1970s. Coming off of the social struggles against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and sexism in the 1960s, even establishment politicians, like Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, were willing to entertain what some have called “technological sovereignty.” Author and researcher Evgeny Morozov described this idea as a “an effort at the level of the United Nations to resist the idea that information should flow freely across borders in a way that these countries wouldn’t have any defense against the efforts of foreign, mostly American, companies to come in and extract whatever data they were producing.”
In short, Canada was concerned that unchecked American capitalism would eat Canada’s lunch if the US controlled the internet.
Image: A Trans-Canada Computer Communications Network
The opening paragraphs of the TCCN report unabashedly states that “a ‘ laissez-faire‘ attitude will eventually result in the supply of most computing and information services via spur lines from US computer communications networks. Such an outcome is completely unacceptable on economic and social grounds.”
“It will be necessary to ensure that the network is responsive to the national interest, and is not allowed to drift aimlessly at the mercy of local and continental market forces,” the report also states.
TCCN came as a proposal at a time when Chile was also experimenting with its own approach to networked computing infrastructure. In 1971, with the election of Salvador Allende’s socialist Popular Unity party, Chile embarked on Project Cybersyn, a futuristic networked computer system designed to manage the production of major commodities and resources in the country. Cybersyn was never completed following dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military-led coup in 1973.
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But there were popular concerns about privacy regarding the TCCN, as evidenced by a 1971 episode of a CBC radio program dedicated to it. One caller, specifically, was worried that the government would use it to spy on or collect data from residents. While there were no publicized plans for the government to build such a database or even own any computers to collect data with, it’s likely that an organization operating infrastructure would know what traffic passed through it.
Dr. Leon Katz, a representative of the Science Council, responded in the CBC segment by noting that the majority of Canadian citizens’ data wasn’t held by the government, but by credit-rating agencies that sold this information for a profit. His concern was that if Canada didn’t develop its own infrastructure that was accountable to the public, private, mostly US-based interests would move forward with the privatization and commodification of personal information.
The council’s report recommended a five-year study, but the network itself never materialized. A follow-up report released by the Science Council in 1973 suggests that it had all but abandoned the concept of a Canadian-owned network utility, moving towards incentive structures for Canada’s computer industry, such as preferential treatment for Federal contracts and import tariffs on foreign technology. Researcher Laurence B. Mussio suggested in a 1996 article that there was pushback from the provinces over the federal government controlling the internet, making TCCN politically fraught. Separately, , the Canadian Universities Network or CANUnet—a push from universities to link their computers in Canada without going through ARPANET—was rejected in 1972 and soon after the CANUnet working group was disbanded. Canada’s own internet was not to be.
It’s clear now in 2018 that Katz and the TCCN architects weren’t wrong to be concerned about a US-led internet. Improperly collected data from Facebook has led to abuses of personal information—most recently in the case of Cambridge Analytica. To Katz’s point about credit agencies in 1971, look to the personal information of millions of people that was stolen from Equifax in 2017. And as we know from Edward Snowden’s leaks, some data collected by the US National Security Agency was sourced by intercepting communication between users and corporate databases.
Image: A Trans-Canada Computer Communications Network
We also see this trend of the concentration of money and power, generally, with the acquisition of franchises by transnational conglomerates like Microsoft, which just a few days ago announced it had acquired independent game development studios Ninja Theory, Playground Games, Compulsion Games, and Undead Labs. Also check out the growth of holding companies such as Tencent in the last few years, which in addition to its massive ownership of social networking platforms and ecommerce tools, is now the largest video game company in the world. A cursory glance at mobile app stores reveals that the most downloaded and most profitable apps are owned by US or European corporations.
Today, Canada, like most of the world, doesn’t have much in the way of internet infrastructure or platforms that are locally created and owned. We rely on Facebook to do our event planning and stay in touch. We use Twitter to read the news or shitpost. Our public schools (90 percent of them in Alberta) and universities use Google products for students and faculty. All of these are US-based companies. Beyond a few rare standouts (such as Shopify, which offers point-of sale and other ecommerce tools, or, at one time, Blackberry) Canada is technologically dependent on the US.
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And on the policy side, of course, the US’s repeal of net neutrality (protections that ensured all data online is treated equally by service providers) is a corporate capitulation that effectively threw down the gauntlet for Canada, which remains publicly committed to net neutrality despite pressure from entrenched interests.
Even if TCCN had been created, there’s a good chance it would have eventually been privatized in much the same way as ARPANET, which was decommissioned as private commercial interests built out the internet in the 1990s. That is, things wouldn’t look much different than they do today.
But decades after the TCCN dream died, some enthusiasts and activists are carrying the idea forward, in a way. Faced with many of the same concerns as TCCN’s architects—the power wielded by private companies online, data abuse, and so on—some communities are currently working together to create local “mesh networks.” Motherboard is in the process of building a community mesh network in Brooklyn, as well. Papua New Guinea’s recent announcement that the government is is considering building its own Facebook alternative suggests that some countries are getting serious about new forms of technological sovereignty. The proposal is double-edged, however—Papua New Guinea will also block Facebook for a month and conduct research on identifying users who post prohibited material under fake names.
As the domination of a few Silicon Valley monopolies becomes ever more apparent, we should keep in mind that a different internet is achievable, one that might put the interests of the average people who use it first.
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