Last week, hundreds of Canadians descended on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for a public rally in support of net neutrality, a contentious issue that focuses on the need for Internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all content and applications in an equal, non-discriminatory manner. The event succeeded in attracting politicians from two major political parties, labour leaders, independent ISPs, and individuals concerned with the Internet in Canada. My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, Vancouver Sun version, homepage version) notes that while it is tempting to view the rally as an anomaly, it is more accurately seen as just the latest in a series of advocacy actions around the world that illustrate both how digital issues are rapidly moving into the policy mainstream and how the Internet can be used to mobilize offline advocacy.
The mounting interest in digital issues such as net neutrality comes as the online environment weaves its way into the fabric of the daily lives of millions of Canadians. Whether for education, entertainment, communication, or commerce, the demographic data demonstrates that an ever-increasing percentage of the population is either "born digital" or has been "raised digital."
In Canada, five and a half million people (17 percent of the population) were born after Netscape launched its first web browser in 1994. While these Canadians are not yet eligible to vote, there is another very large cohort that is – the additional seven million Canadians (20.5 percent of the population) who were under the age of 15 when Netscape debuted. Putting this into perspective, it is no exaggeration to say that nearly 40 percent of the Canadian population can scarcely recall a world without the Internet and that this group unsurprisingly views digital issues as important.
Not only is the Internet increasingly the focus of policy advocacy, but it also serves as the platform to enable such advocacy. For example, the net neutrality rally was promoted online through a Facebook group and a website dedicated to the event. Event participants also established mobile Internet connectivity on the grounds of Parliament Hill so that attendees could quickly post news and photos of the rally online. Indeed, the use of Facebook in rally planning has become the defacto standard in Canada. With more than seven million Canadian users, the social network is a proven tool for rapidly bringing together tens of thousands of Canadians. Facebook users may find one another online, yet they often use it to organize offline activities ranging from local meetups to large rallies.
The link between online and offline advocacy is not limited to Canada. Earlier this year, opponents of the FARC, the longtime Colombian rebel group, established a Facebook group to voice their opposition. The group garnered 250,000 members in just one month, leading to offline protests in 185 cities around the world. Similarly, Egyptian activists used Facebook in early April to galvanize labour strikes in cities throughout the country.
When combined with the plethora of other Internet-based tools – sites like Ushahidi.com that uses Google Maps to catalog incidents of violence in Kenya, political videos on YouTube that spread virally to millions of people, and instant messaging services such as Twitter that can quickly inform protesters about events in real-time – last week’s net neutrality rally in Ottawa provided yet another sign that the age of effective digital advocacy is here.