By severely restricting Canadians’ ability to express and access ideas online, Bill C-10 puts us at a competitive disadvantage in an increasingly knowledge-based and globalized world. Its consequence will be Canada’s long-term decline.
RAGE OF ANGELS
As Bill C-10 makes its way through the parliamentary process, much is being written and said about how it would cause erosion of Canadians’ rights to free expression. There is reason to believe that if passed in its current form, the Bill would likely fall afoul of the Charter. In the meantime, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has (predictably) stated that his party would vote in favor of the Bill. I believe that the reason behind this – apart from the less-than-optimal condition that the Party is in as an organization – is that during Mr. Singh’s tenure as the leader, it has become even more Statist than it was earlier. Accordingly, no amount of State control on Canadian society is too much in its view.
Any assault on free speech should be alarming, regardless of who engages in it, and on what pretext. The currently fashionable pretext is that the government has an obligation to prevent the ‘spread of hatred’. While it is not an arguable point, the fact is that sufficient legal safeguards already exist to address any act of spreading hatred. Whereas these safeguards come into place after potentially hateful ideas are expressed, what Bill C-10 does is to prevent them from being expressed altogether. In other words, Bill C-10 represents a change in legislative / governmental approach from responsive to a pre-emptive one. This represents a paradigm shift: every entity expressing ideas to Canadians will be required to register, and be regulated by, an arm of the government, regardless of the nature of their content, and also regardless of where they are based (i.e. Canadian law would have jurisdiction outside Canada). The number of potential registrants is, thus, perhaps in the tens of millions – or even higher.
Apart from the colossal administrative footprint required to implement this vision, it also suffers from the defect of imposing collective punishment on an entire society for the (potentially) problematic actions of the few. Given the ideological leanings of the current federal government, this is not surprising. A government that pursues protection of vulnerable groups with missionary zeal – indeed, as its raison d’etre, will inevitably find new groups of ‘vulnerable’ people to protect, and new ‘threats’ to protect them from. It is important to note here that neither the ‘vulnerability’ nor the ‘threat’ needs to actually exist; it suffices if they can be hypothesized.
Commentary on and criticism of Bill C-10 is ongoing and wide-ranging, including from a former head of CRTC itself – the organization that will be tasked with the implementation of Bill C-10. However, I have not come across anyone making one hugely significant point: If Canadians’ right to free expression does get curtailed as intended in Bill C-10, what is the long-term implication of that for the Canadian society?
As chance would have it, a similar instance took place not too far back in history, and may provide us with a glimpse of what is in store for Canada after Canadians are no longer able to express and access ideas in a free manner. Before we take a look at that example, however, it is necessary that I explain the specific context in which I am juxtaposing the historical example with our current predicament.
During my stint as a talk-show host on radio, one day I was talking to a host of another show on the station, where he remarked that we are living in the digital age. I thought that this term did not do sufficient justice to describing the current technological stage that we are in, so I expanded on that.
Before the advent of digital technologies, the cutting-edge medium of storage for data as well as audio and visual content was magnetic. The introduction of disks ushered in the digital age, around the early 1980’s. Access to the information that was stored on these disks was intensely local, and could not be shared over a distance. This changed somewhat when software (notably Microsoft WorkGroups) enabled data-sharing with other computers that were located in close vicinity. The turning point came with the internet; information could be shared on a platform that was accessible to anyone around the world as long as they had a computer connected to the platform. This was the information age. In short order, many websites started allowing readers to post their reactions to the contents of the website ‘below the line’. This was the interactive age; consumers could provide feedback in regard to what they were consuming. The value of this feedback cannot be over-emphasized.
However, it pales in significance when we compare it to what followed: social media. By enabling practically everyone on the planet to create content and make it available for consumption, social media has provided an outlet to human creativity and/or productivity at an unprecedented scale. The vastness of the cyber world is something to behold; even on the most obscure of topics, one is likely to find multiple sources of content. As the economy evolves – perhaps co-evolves is a better term – with more and more platforms that enable creating and accessing content, we see highly successful ideas that would have been unviable, even unfeasible, without the benefit of current technology. For example, the YouTube channel called ‘The History Guy’ delves into important but largely forgotten episodes of history around the world, and has close to a million subscribers. And while the history of the world can be of general interest to all, another channel called ‘Forgotten Weapons’, with over two million subscribers,gives fascinating accounts of (mainly) the development of firearms in the US and Europe. For example, those who have seen the classic Western movie The Good, The Bad and The Ugly may remember that in the scene where the bandit Tuco obtains a gun, the old storekeeper shows him different revolvers including one called Joslyn (at the 2:35 mark in this link). This brand of revolvers actually existed, and its history is described on Forgotten Weapons in this link.
The paradigm shift that resulted from social media is unmistakable: it turned all consumers of content into potential producers. Hence, I told my fellow-host that we are now living in the age of participation. One major feature of this age is that connections between people are often extremely transient. One stumbles upon an interesting Podcast, communicates with the host for a while before forgetting about it / them altogether. For those who monetize their content, this is significant – their aim is to turn each fleeting encounter into a permanent subscriber. On the flip side, the transience keeps the consumer free to access information in a wide variety of fields, from practically unlimited number of sources.
What effect will this churn of information among strangers – often located very far from each other – have on the future economy? As the great sci-fi writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘It is difficult to predict – especially the future’. But one thing is amply clear – in that future economy, those who participate fully in the cyber-world will fare a lot better than those who don’t. This applies equally to societies and individuals – as it did in our historical example.
‘THE FATWA THAT ENDED AN EMPIRE’
A few years ago, I was watching a video of a show on a Pakistani TV channel in which Hassan Nisar, a senior journalist and analyst, mentioned that when the printing press was invented in Europe, the topmost Islamic authority in Istanbul, Turkey issued a fatwa against its use. This fatwa remained in effect for about 270 years. According to Hassan Nisar, this one fatwa had had the effect of setting the Muslim world behind in such a way that it has not yet recovered.
I had not known about this fatwa, so I decided to dig deeper into it. The details were fascinating and highly educative.
It is important to note here that Turkey (or more precisely, the Ottoman Empire) was not just a political power but also a Caliphate, and as such, was the seat of the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam. Almost all the books that were being ‘manu-scripted’ were of a religious nature. Another noteworthy point is that there is some difference of opinion among historians as to whether the prohibition against printing was issued as a fatwa by the Sheikh-ul-Islam (the topmost cleric in the religious hierarchy) or by the Ottoman king as a royal decree. I am of the opinion that the distinction is largely academic; either way, the religious authority would have influenced the decision in a significant manner. Hence, I will be using the term fatwa in this article.
It is often claimed that since books were being hand-copied at the time, the sizable community of ‘copyists’ (‘nussakh’ in Arabic, plural of ‘nasikh’) who numbered in the tens of thousands in Istanbul would have faced a serious challenge from the printing press, and most likely lost their livelihoods. The fatwa was, thus, intended to protect the economic interests of the nussakh according to this claim.
While this claim seemed plausible, I felt that it was inadequate; there would have been other considerations that went into the fatwa. I then came across a report titled ‘To Print Or Not To Print’ on the website of The Agha Khan University that provided more insight. Here are some of the concerns that the report’s author Walid Ghali Nasr mentions, which led to the prohibition of printing:
- Intentional use of impure materials such as ink, paper or other medium would put the perpetrator outside the borders of Islam (there was suspicion of using brushes made of pig bristles in inking the platen),
- The ulema (learned clerics) were always wary of the possibility of religious innovation, as it could alter and distort religious teachings,
- This concern was heightened by the fact the printers in Europe had already printed the Qur’an that contained many inaccuracies, including, importantly, one case in which Prophet Mohammed was described as a false prophet in a Qur’an,
- One little-known aspect of Islamic manuscripts was that while they were copies of existing copies, each could be traced back to the original manuscript from which it was descended; the fear was that with a printing press, this traceability would be lost,
- There were doubts as to whether pious Muslims could associate with products of a non-Islamic (kuffar) civilization,
- Printing attacked the very heart of Islamic systems for the transmission of knowledge, which had been oral; it was feared that printing would (a) reduce Muslims’ desire to memorize knowledge, and (b) dilute religious authority that relied on its oral transmission of knowledge.
The single thread that binds together these wide-ranging arguments is that each was about a perceived harm to society. The response from the authorities to this perceived threat of harm was to prohibit a technology that was causing knowledge to spread like wildfire elsewhere in the world. Instead of adapting to the change, they were shutting their society in, so that it would not have to interact with the agent of change. Current opinion among the people interested in this chapter of history is nearly unanimous that this voluntary isolationism caused grievous and long-term setback for the entire Muslim world. Whereas it had once spearheaded the advancement of knowledge in science, math and astronomy etc., the Islamic world quickly became the backwaters of the world of knowledge. As a result, it lost its vitality and prosperity.
Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, so it is easy for us to point fingers at those who made a momentously wrong decision. But we must learn from their mistake, and apply the lesson to our circumstances in our quest for finding the right course of action. The long-term prospects for our society depend on how good we are at this application.
After I started writing this article, I came across an instance on Twitter that perfectly illuminates the age of participation. Journalist Jackson Proskow, who is the Washington bureau chief for Global News, tweeted that the US had launched a tool where texting a ZIP code to a centralized phone number gave you an instant reply with nearby vaccination sites. This was retweeted by his Toronto based colleague Kamil Karamali. Shortly thereafter, a gentleman by the name of Zain Manji replied to this by offering to build a similar tool for Ontario. As Kamil Karamali tweeted later, this tool was ready and tested in just 3 hours.
It is likely that Kamil Karamali and Zain Manji were already acquainted, but the key factor here is that it wouldn’t have mattered if they hadn’t known each other from Adam – the process would have still worked as effectively and expeditiously. I believe it is difficult to find a better example of collaborative work that is the hallmark of the age of participation: delivering a highly valuable product, at lightening speed, in response to a newly emerged need that will probably not exist beyond a few months. In technical lingo, this tool is ‘user-generated content’, and would fall within the purview of Bill C-10. What happens to its delivery if the content-generator, who had no prior inkling that he would be creating this tool, were to be required first to register with the government and comply with the regulations, before making the tool available to users? While different people think differently, my guess is that the person would not bother trying.
A NEW DAWN DAILY
Am I giving exaggerated importance to the online nature of information, knowledge, work and collaboration of our times? Here are my reasons for believing that I am not:
- Any new way of creating, storing and transmitting information and creating value from it will inevitably become the norm as time passes,
- Irrespective of our sensibilities, the world will always consist of the haves versus the have-nots,
- It is human nature to gain an advantage over others by trying to belong to the group of haves,
- From the first two, it follows that by placing restrictions on our ability to participate fully in the cyber world, our government will relegate us to the group of have-nots – which will suit our competitors just fine.
Apart from the infamous fatwa, there were other factors that also contributed to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world. For example, as Iqbal Jafar notes in his article Origins Of Islam’s Crises, an astronomical observatory was demolished in 1580 (soon after its construction) because the Sheikh-ul-Islam argued that ‘prying into the secrets of the heavens was blasphemous’. This can be generalized as follows: acquiring more knowledge is prohibited because it offends our ideological beliefs (or, alternatively, because it may reveal our ideological beliefs to be false). In the words of Jafar, in addition to the fatwa,
‘There were other bans, taboos and restrictions which, compounded by the sheer lack of curiosity, placed the Ottoman Empire in a self-imposed intellectual quarantine’.
The parallel with our society is starkly obvious – we are seeing a steady increase in ‘bans, taboos and restrictions’ regarding issues that can be discussed in public. The one thing that is keeping our hopes alive is our ability to express our ideas in a (relatively) free manner – although that has been coming under pressure in the last few years as well. Once Bill C-10 takes legislative effect, we will have placed ourselves in a self-imposed quarantine; those remaining hopes will be extinguished, and our long-term decline as a society will begin.