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Statscan Survey Shows Internet’s Potential and Pitfalls

Canadian Internet policy has long been based on the principle of private sector leadership.  The 2005 Canadian Internet Use Survey, released last week by Statistics Canada, suggests that the approach has generally served us well with the data demonstrating that a significant percentage of Canadians now regularly use the Internet for an increasingly diverse range of activities. 

The survey found that nearly 17 million Canadians – 68 percent of the adult population – used the Internet for personal non-business reasons last year.  Moreover, almost two-thirds of Canadian adults who accessed the Internet from home did so daily.  This represents a remarkable shift with ten million Canadians reserving some of their at home leisure time for the Internet.

Once online, more than half of Canadian Internet users use the network for email (the highest ranked activity with 92 percent indicating that they used email), web browsing, viewing news and sports, electronic banking and bill payment, as well as accessing information on weather, travel, health, and government services.  Moreover, over 40 percent of Internet users indicated that they engaged in e-commerce, education, and community events.

This good news story is precisely what the government had in mind when it adopted a hands off approach to the Internet – the private sector and academic communities built the network, developed the applications, offered the online services – and Canadians responded by the millions.

Despite the success, deeper analysis raises some alarm bells. The trouble spots in the survey – a growing digital divide between urban and rural Canada, continuing concern over privacy and security, and stubborn consumer skepticism of e-commerce – may ultimately convince the government to adopt a more proactive policy approach.

While 68 percent of Canadians used the Internet in 2005, there is a noticeable difference between urban and rural populations.  Ottawa and Calgary had the highest Internet use of the Canadian cities at 77 percent (Toronto was just behind at 75 percent), a significant gap from the 58 percent usage in rural and small town communities.

The likely explanation for the 19 percent differential is the lack of high-speed Internet access in rural communities.  Given the increasing dependence on the Internet for access to government, health, financial, and education services, access to high-speed Internet services should be regarded as a necessity, not a luxury.  If the private sector is unable or unwilling to supply such services, governments at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels should consider programs or incentives to bridge the divide.

Second, Canadians remain fearful of the security and privacy risks associated with the Internet as almost three-quarters of survey respondents indicated that they were either concerned or very concerned about security and privacy.  These concerns likely encompass security breaches, personal data misuse, as well as the proliferation of spam and spyware.

The data provides convincing evidence that privacy and security concerns have a bottom line impact on e-commerce.  Fifty-seven percent of Internet users engaged in "online window shopping" in 2005, yet only 43 percent actually ordered personal goods or services.  This suggests that many Canadians use the Internet to research potential purchases, but remain reluctant to provide credit card data or other personal information to complete the transaction.

The government can help bolster confidence in e-commerce by addressing these privacy and security concerns.  A Parliamentary review of the federal private sector privacy legislation, scheduled for this fall, provides an excellent opportunity to beef up privacy protections to help assuage Canadians’ concerns. 

Moreover, the government would do well to consider implementing security breach disclosure legislation that would require organizations to advise consumers when their personal information has been the target of a security breach.  It should also tackle the spam and spyware problem by placing the issue on the legislative agenda (a 2005 National Spam Task Force report recommended that the government introduce an anti-spam statute).

The Statistics Canada survey paints a picture of an Internet that has become an integral part of the lives of millions of Canadians who go online for communication, commerce, access to information, education, and entertainment.  While innovation will drive future success, the government may also have to play its part to ensure that all Canadians benefit from the online world.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.  He was a member of the National Spam Task Force.  He can reached at or online at

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