Media Regulation, Public Memory and the WayBackMachine
The WayBackMachine is a colossal public digital archive of the Internet backed by the massive resources of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress in Washington. There is nothing even close to it Canada and that is a problem because it means the many of our public records from the online world no longer reside in this country.
And so it is, for instance, that the oldest known digital copy of the CRTC’s website – dating from May 1, 1997 — can only be obtained from the WayBackMachine. Not only is this an important document because it is the earliest record of the agency’s activities online, but also because the ‘snapshot’ of the website taken on that day reveals a bold statement of principles that were supposed to guide all of the CRTC’s activities: “Communication in the Public Interest” – as had been the case for more than twenty years before that.
The last known digital record of this statement is from December 20th, 2008. A visitor to the website on that day would have still seen the words “Communication in the Public Interest” right at the top of the page.
Moreover, the fact that the phrase had risen from the bottom of the page to the top over the years might have suggested that the public interest had become even more important as time passed in light of the momentous changes that have been sweeping the media and Internet. Indeed, no matter what it did, the CRTC’s decisions would shape these developments for decades to come, and so it was wise to have a sturdy set of values close to hand as it navigated the turbulent waters ahead.
Such wishful thinking, however, would have been mistaken. Indeed, while many Canadians were celebrating holidays and ringing in the New Year, sometime between December 20th, 2008 and January 21st, 2009 when the WayBackMachine took its next snapshot of the CRTC’s website, the “public interest” had vanished. Forever.
Ever since, the CRTC has recast itself in a decidedly different mold, as its new ‘mission statement’ asserts:
“An Independent Public Authority in charge of regulating and supervising Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications”.
“Authority”, “supervising”, “regulating” – these are not words that reflect a democratic frame of mind that aims to inspire public participation in the processes that will shape the digital media landscape of the 21st Century. Instead, they are a brusque assertion of authority and part of the linguistic fortress put into place by a ‘muscular state’ under the Harper Government that seems designed more to keep the public at bay rather than to deepen its involvement in such affairs.
It is also a language that conceals major issues and values behind a thicket of techno-bureaucratic mumbo jumbo: User Based Billing, Internet Traffic Management Practices, Bandwidth Caps, etc. These are not words that aim to inspire people, but to make their eyes glaze over and to turn away. It is a language that only lawyers and lobbyists can love.
Remarkably, no record at all of this change from the “public interest” to “public authority” standard of regulation exists in Canada, either from the CRTC’s own website or other Government websites. Library and Archives Canada maintains some records for all Government websites, but its records of the CRTC’s digital online footprint are pitiful, covering two years from 2006 until 2007.
This extremely limited coverage not only applies to the CRTC, but appears to be the standard practice adopted for all Government websites in Canada. It is an incredibly weak standard in comparison to those in the U.S. and Britain, for example, where snapshots of all domains (not just government sites) of the “national Internet space” are routinely added to the national digital archives and extend much further back in time.
It is a sad indictment of the Harper Government that we, as a country, have to rely on the WayBackMachine to cobble together the bits and pieces that make up public memory as well as the evidence needed to illustrate the change from the public interest to the “public authority” model of regulation that has taken place. Indeed, it is an irony of the highest order that the effort to scrub the CRTC’s historical record of its past commitments to the “public interest” can only be discovered on a website stored and run out of Washington.
If there was ever a way to kill off the notion of “the public”, this is it. We must ask, why has the “public interest” been thrown under the bus on the Harper Government’s watch? And why should we rely on digital archives set up and operated at public expense out of Washington to fill in the gaps left by our own public institutions – the Government and the CRTC – who have failed entirely to maintain a comprehensive, digitized public historical record of our own?
The WayBackMachine and other, publicly-supported, user-driven social media projects like it usefully create, store gather, organize and disseminate a wealth of ideas, memories, records, and knowledge. Some such sites, such as Wikipedia, are stunningly successful, consistently ranking among the top ten websites in the world — except in authoritarian countries such as China and Iran.
As records are scrubbed and left to vanish, we need the WayBackMachine and others of its kind more than ever. Nonetheless, such efforts are no substitute for an official digital record of where we have been in Canada, where we are going, or of the silent switch that has taken place between the principles of the past and the lost souls who govern in this country today.
Democratic societies demand nothing less than regulators – and a government, first and foremost — who are steered by an informed appreciation of who the public is and what they want. We also need a clear digital record of that commitment.