How is it that, as individuals, Canadians are such avid internet users, but our institutions, governments and companies are somewhere between technophobic and luddite?
Take for example the recent story Alison L. sent me from Stephen Taylor‘s blog in which he comment on this CBC news story. The story? That Canada’s Privacy Commissioner has written Google about her concern that Google Maps’ Street View functionality may violate Canada’s federal privacy legislation if it is implemented here.
For the uninitiated Google (and/or a partner firm) creates this street map feature by literally driving a car along a street with a camera on its roof and it takes a photo about every 5 seconds. This allows the user to “see” what the street looks like from various 5 meter increments. The commissioners concern is:
“Our Office considers images of individuals that are sufficiently clear to allow an individual to be identified to be personal information within the meaning of PIPEDA [the privacy act]”
One wonders where the Privacy Commissioner has been for the last 5, 10 or even 25 years (ok, ok, I concede that the privacy laws are relatively new… but still!). As Stephen points out – why hasn’t the Privacy Commissioner shut down Flickr? Indeed, virtually all Web 2.0 content could be suspect. It might be safer to shut down whole swaths of the web.
What’s interesting to me is that it is a website that has prompted this discussion. When this problem existed in traditional forms of media – ones’ presumably the commissioner is more comfortable with – it didn’t bother her.
City TV and Muchmusic are famous for doing interviews while showing live streetscapes in the background. Given the bar the commissioner has set, isn’t this footage illegal? And if we really want to take it to an extreme… what about the street level cameras on apartment buildings that enable people to see who is ringing their doorbell. Many of these camera’s are always on and can be watched from tenants TVs… if the Privacy Commissioners above statement is the standard we are to use… isn’t this a violation of privacy as well? Shouldn’t all these cameras be unplugged?
The above example highlights the prevailing attitude many organizations in Canada have towards the internet: move slowly, move cautiously, and, if possible, don’t move at all. Don’t believe me? Or perhaps we can hope the problem is limited to government? Well… Katie M. recently sent me this survey of Canada and the internet. According to it Canada is on par, and even ahead of, the United States when it comes to internet – and in particular broadband – access and usage. Even our blogosphere is strong. And yet, despite all this, e-commerce in Canada lags far behind the US. Name a single Canadian retailer with a strong online presence. Many Canadian stories don’t even allow people to shop online.
Why is this? Who knows. Could it be a weak tech sector in Canada? A business culture that is shockingly conservative? A brain drain of tech savvy people to San Francisco, Boston and other technology centres? A lack of venture capital? I don’t know.
What I do know is that this should concern Canadians. Individually, we are leaving our government and large corporations in the dust. At some point our capacity to innovate, to seek social change, to capitalize on economic opportunities will be limited by their narrow vision and understanding of the internet phenomenon.