On Tories, Politics, and the StatCan Crisis

I’m not going to speak much about the Long-Form StatCan fiasco that the Tories have created this summer because so many other people and news organizations are covering it so well. David Eaves and Datalibre.ca have strong commentary and lists of organizations against it.  The Globe and Mail and The National Post have both kept their attention on the issue, too.   Aside from the fact that great resources already exist on this file, I haven’t offered my thoughts on it yet because so much of the issue lies in rhetoric, ideology, and politics.

Munir Sheikh, speaking truth to power. Click for details.

The Conservative Party of Canada, in its role as government, can if it so desires tell Statistics Canada to ditch the long form.  And Munir Sheikh, as the former director of StatCan, protests the only way he could by tendering his resignation.  Sheikh, like a proper civil servant, spoke truth to power and should be commended for it.  On these points, most people will agree.

If the Conservatives really do believe that the Long Form issue is about compelling citizens to offer information to the government under threat of a prison term (as PMO spokesman Dmitri Soudas keeps saying, as wannabe PM Maxime Bernier keeps suggesting, and as Tony Clement, I suspect, has been ordered to continually argued), then all the government must do to rectify this is change the StatCan Act so that individuals would be rewarded instead of punished for filing the long form.   I won’t take credit for this idea, since I’ve heard it several times in the media in the past week: Offer a $20 tax credit upon completion and submission of the long form. Anyone who has filed income taxes will appreciate the idea of a tax credit, and anyone who has filed income taxes also knows that a $20 credit does not equal $20 in tax savings, either.  This incentive could be a win-win for all parties.

As for the second-most argued point of contention about the long-form – whether or not the government should collect what might be privileged, personal data, e.g., what time you go to work in the morning, how many bedrooms are in the house, I think the CPC is making political hay.  What’s important is not how many bedrooms I, Michael Steeleworthy, possess (2), whether I rent or own (rent), or what time I go to work in the morning (between 8 and 830, depending on the time I wake up).  What matters is the aggregate data that comes of it.  No one is ever going to look at my own data to compromise my privacy – the government has not enough time on its hands to snoop into such arcane matters and has more important things to do.  And frankly, StatCan data is closely guarde  Its data is not freely available to the public, and its original files are kept under lock and key; not even Misters Harper, Soudas, Clement or Bernier could access my census form.  Really, if the government is keen on turning themselves into libertarian ideologues instead being the administrators of representative governance when it comes to the issue of data collection, then it should also stop collecting income taxes at CRA, and as Dan Gardner noted in the Ottawa Citizen, it better bow out of FINTRAC as soon as possible, since if there was ever an Orwellian “spy-on-your-neighbour organization out there”, this is the one.

What’s more, if the CPC is bothered by the collection of information, it may as well shred its own database of party members, which is a storehouse of information that their grassroots base would presumably disagree with (if the current CPC rhetoric about data collection is to be believed) in the first place.  Dear Stephen Harper, I’ve heard that teaching by example is the best way to give a lesson, so let’s start this Data Collection Disruption at home and send the CPC’s own files to the great Shredder in the sky.

Former Ontario Minister Snobelin, famous for wanting to create a "useful crisis" to promote political aims. Click for details.

Snarky comments aside, the long form issue is a political issue, and I don’t see the CPC moving back from it.  I may be wrong – I’m not a seasoned political observer, I’m only a fairly bright fellow living on the east coast.  But one thing is clear: in the tradition of one-time Ontario PC Minister of Education John Snobelin (cf. Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution; Snobelin served alongside Ministers Clement and Flaherty, I might note), the best way to create change in government is to create a crisis.  And that’s what’s happened with the Long Form.  The CPC has created a crisis.  Even if Stephen Harper, through Tony Clement, were to suddenly make peace and reach for consensus, they will have shifted the status quo closer toward their own political ideology.

Social media, privacy, and self-censorship

I had a chance to attend the local Third Wednesday new media roundup here in Halifax this week. I unfortunately arrived late and also had to leave early (work called, and prior engagements beckoned), so I didn’t hear the entire debate about social media and the workplace, and I certainly couldn’t take part in it since the room was overflowing with guests. But I did catch a few quips and statements that I wished I could take part in:

1. Social Media as personal branding. I can only nod in agreement to this: even the newest, greenest twitterer will quickly realize that social media shines when the person comes out from behind the curtain. Promote yourself, and the organization you are a part of will soon be part of your conversations with other people.

2. The “Facebook Generation” and Privacy. Some people wondered aloud what the “Facebook Generation” is doing to themselves, or even worse, what “we’re” doing to them by allowing so much crude and otherwise private material to be discovered online. I was surprised to hear statements like this from a group of people who are deeply entwined in social media: it’s one thing to think about consequences, but it’s another to damn the reason why we’ve all congregated here. But I digress. What bothered me about this conversation was that there was little consideration of the fact that younger people – whether you want to call them “Generation Next” or not – have grown up in a world with a different sense of what should be private and what should not be. It won’t matter as much to this generation whether or not a tasteless photo of their youth is discovered when they’re running for political office. And just as hippies soon grew up and became the establishment, one day this generation will grew up and become the establishment, and their own social mores will affect the larger social fabric. In my mind, it is all akin to Bill Clinton‘s (second-)famous statement, “I didn’t inhale.”

3. Self-censorship. The conversation ended with a rousing debate about the ends to which people will “self-censor” online and whether this a good thing or not. This is a moot point, because we mediate our notions of our selves every day, whether or not we are online or not. Just as we will tell the same story differently to our grandmother and our best friend, and just as we’re a little more guarded with people we have just met than with our lifelong buddies, so do we mediate our person with our different online communities. The fact that I don’t say X online because I don’t know what Y particular “friend” may think of it is no different from the fact I hold back on saying Z at the office even though I may say it at the bar or at home. Of course I’m painting with broad strokes and generalizing to a certain degree on this one, but my point is that self-censorship and social media is not a new phenomena but an everyday part of our everyday lives. We are social animals, with or without our always-on connection to the internet.

(in spite of all those criticisms, I enjoyed my time and will definitely be back for next month’s talk – social media and political movements. This is something I can shake a few fists at and support..)

Google.cn and “Don’t be evil”

Here’s a little something think about and e-mail to all of your friends of neighbours over the next few days. June 2009, you will recall, has the unfortunate pleasure of marking the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Uprising. Many people were hurt, killed, and repressed. But, as a good friend noted when he forwarded me this article, many more today don’t even realize it happened or just consider it only a tiny blip on the way to domestic prosperity. Mirroring this sentiment is a post that a user at LIS News made that links to Frontline‘s 2006 exposé on Google’s self-censorship on keyword searches on Google.cn.  This page is a stirring reminder that Google’s mantra of “Don’t be evil” is often lost in translation or subordinated to a footnote in a corporate annual report.

Looking at the screenshots that Frontline made in 2006 is a good way to put our love for Google in check. So many of us (and I count myself in this bunch) are inextricably tired to various Google products and apps, from its powerful index and search engine to its free e-mail service and RSS reader. Google makes the Internet so easy to work with that we hardly notice the tidy profit they make from our love for their wares. Yet, when we are given a chance to take a serious look at what Google does to its own index of the Internet so that it may increase its market share in foreign or closed markets, we can see clearly that Google and “Don’t be evil” aren’t tied to the hip like we like to believe they are.

I’m not going to cut-and-paste Frontline’s images into this post because I think it’s important that you visit the Frontline website for yourself – continued traffic will hopefully give them pause to keep this page up for a rather long time. When you do make it there, however, I’m confident you’ll be at least a tiny bit shocked to see firsthand what Google sacrificed in order to enter the domestic Chinese market. Self-censorship has become key to the Google business model in China. Searching for “Tiananmen Square” in Google’s image database from a café in Chengdu won’t retrieve links to the ubiquitous photo of the anonymous student who confronted a column of tanks as it would in Toronto, London or Rome but will rather show warm photos of the tourist site. Meanwhile, searching for “Falun Dafa” will not return a single hit. In order to maintain a place in the Chinese market, Google restricts access to its database and sees higher ad rates and click-throughs (and presumably a healthier bottom line) in the long run.

That’s the problem with Google and “Don’t be evil.” Sitting in our offices and cozy living rooms and dens and bedrooms here in the West, we don’t notice that Google has self-censored and altered access to its index. We hear about this from time to time, but it hardly affects us, so we tend to forget about it. Google China‘s practices isn’t doing any harm to you or I, and they’re certainly not doing any harm to its shareholders’ ROI, but they are actively restricting the type of information that can be retrieved for millions of Internet users on the other side of world.

This is perhaps one of the largest reminders we have that corporate interests are not always aligned with the interests of the people. Think for a second who controls the way you access information on the Internet, from your local service providers to search engines to backbone consortia. The Internet isn’t free and Google isn’t benevolent. Remember that the next time you might look for something controversial in an index.