The internet has become a vital part of our infrastructure and it is, in many ways, as indispensable as traditional utilities like electricity, telephone service and natural gas. It's as essential to our world today as highways, water mains, and sewers.


We don't, as a rule, build important infrastructure without considerable planning, policy and debate - but none of that happened with the internet.


Unlike our utilities, or our physical infrastructure components like highways and sewer systems, the internet, in effect, came in the back door as an overlay on top of existing communications infrastructure. In doing so, it by-passed traditional planning processes.


Many nations today are now developing and implementing national digital strategies that they hope will shape the future of the internet for the benefit of their nations and citizens.


Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain and New Zealand are among the countries that have already released digital strategies. Indeed, New Zealand released the second version of its strategy back in 2008. There've been discussions in Canada amongst various groups comprised of government, public agencies and the private sector, but we're still far from formulating a national digital strategy of our own that protects and promotes our nation and its people in the digital age.


The scope of the national digital strategies developed abroad is quite extensive. What's generally not included, though, is a broader look at digital infrastructure and common services.  Like many countries, we've become dependent on a lot of services over which we have little or no national control. However, just because we can't control them doesn't mean that others can't.   Often, unbeknownst to us, our digital activities expose us to powerful foreign legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act and its far-reaching powers.


In the physical world, when we cross the border into another country, we understand - or should understand - that we are now subject to the laws of that country. What many may not realize, though, is that our digital transactions and data cross borders with great frequency - and we're often not even aware of it.


It is often very difficult or impossible to determine whether our digital activities are wholly contained within Canada or not. It might seem natural to conclude that a transaction between a Canadian consumer and a Canadian company, or between two Canadian companies, might be wholly under the jurisdiction - and protection - of Canadian law, but is that true?  What if the website is hosted on a server located in the U.S.?  What if payment is made through American-owned PayPal? Even a seemingly insignificant detail such as an e-mail confirmation of a transaction that is sent to a Gmail or Hotmail account takes the transaction information through foreign-owned servers and, likely, into the U.S. or elsewhere beyond our borders.


Most online Canadians use foreign-owned services including Google, YouTube, Skype, MSN Messenger, Twitter and Facebook to name but a few. And while we may occasionally consider whether we want these companies collecting data about what we say and do online, we seldom, if ever, consider the broader implications of that data collection. Collectively, it paints a detailed picture of individual Canadians - and when that data resides beyond our borders, it is also largely beyond our control and potentially subject to intrusive foreign laws.


Increasingly, too, Canadian companies are building services on scalable cloud-computing platforms offered by foreign-controlled companies including IBM, Microsoft and Amazon and these are usually also hosted beyond our borders. Many companies also use online software services provided by third parties and have no idea where their data actually resides.


We're effectively outsourcing much of the digital infrastructure of our online social and economic world and, when you do that, you can lose control. While we can control some of what happens within our borders - for example, Canadian privacy laws did cause Facebook to change how it operates in Canada - we can't control what occurs beyond our borders.

There's an economic impact to using foreign-owned services, too.  Money flows out of the Canadian economy when we do this.  Genesis may have been "Selling England by the Pound" but we're selling Canada bit by bit.


This isn't a plea for regulatory intervention.  However, as part of our national digital strategy, we do need to consider our digital sovereignty. Educating consumers and companies of the risks associated with the data that transcends our borders should be an important consideration.  The responsibility for the privacy and security of our data for government, the private sector and individuals, can't be ignored. We need to ensure that adequate infrastructure services that are wholly contained within our Canadian digital borders are available.  Only by doing this can we ensure our security, autonomy and sovereignty in a digital world, and keep our dollars working in our domestic economy.

[Update: The Mark published a condensed version of this on February 26, 2010 at]


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This page contains a single entry by Alan Sawyer published on February 17, 2010 5:00 AM.

Canada's growing attention trade deficit was the previous entry in this blog.

Heritage is steering the Canada Media Fund down the wrong path is the next entry in this blog.

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