Discursive Legitimation in the Cultures of Internet Policymaking

Discursive Legitimation in the Cultures of Internet Policymaking Abstract A socio-technical lens on the development of the Internet suggests that policymaking plays a constitutive role in the meanings of technology and its uses. In the Canadian context, I trace how early “information society” discourses underlying negative policy strategies continued into current discursive legitimations of the Internet as essential communications infrastructure. The federal regulator’s 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services public proceedings forms a case study that highlights how certain discourses become legitimized and others recede, ultimately resulting in a maintenance of the regulatory status quo despite the appearance of a public interest imperative. Introduction: Socio-technics and policy Understandings of the Internet as socio-technical argue that technology simultaneously shapes and is shaped by social relations (e.g., Wyatt, 2004). One key social relation for privileging certain visions of Internet technology, its users, and its uses is telecommunications policy, a domain invested with the legitimacy of the government as a public institution (Sarikakis, 2004). This article offers a case study of how telecommunications policy gets made within a particular community of practice: the proceedings of Canada’s federal communications regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Framing the CRTC’s regulatory environment through a Science and Technology Studies (STS) perspective as a community of practice enables an examination of how different players in the debate articulate their positions around the “boundary object” of the Internet (Star & Griesemer, 1989). The idea of a boundary object sees the Internet as a kind of imagined technology, overlaid with social values that are malleable according to political exigencies that exist in tension among diverse members of a social world or “community of practice.” Within the community of practice of the CRTC, I argue, competing discourses about the Internet’s social values tend to reinforce the power disparities between interlocutors. Viewing policymaking as a process, through the lens of STS concepts, opens up new ways of charting how power gets discursively legitimized via competing images of the Internet. In 2015 and 2016, the CRTC conducted the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services to update its basic service obligation: its duty to ensure that Canadians across the country benefit from adequate service levels despite providers’ concentration on lower-cost, urban areas. Setting policy for basic or universal service is one of the fundamental mandates of any federal regulatory body, since ensuring that citizens, groups, businesses, and governments can communicate with each other underlies both national prosperity and the broader public interest. Yet most studies of basic service policies tend to evaluate the impact and implications of regulatory measures, rather than the way these measures arise from specific policymaking contexts (e.g., Gillett, 2000; Winseck, 1997). The current moment, in which the Internet is framed as central to contemporary communications infrastructure, invites a more socio-technical perspective on basic service regulation that looks at the process of articulating Internet policy as central to the process of imagining the Internet. A focus on the process rather than the product of the CRTC’s basic service consultations highlights how specific sets of social relations within the community of practice at the CRTC legitimate certain discourses about the Internet and what constitutes basic services. These discourses are crucial to critique, since they fundamentally constitute participation in the CRTC’s culture and its governmentality. This approach is indebted to the work of critical policy scholars, whose research intervenes in and challenges dominant policy frames by highlighting the taken-for-granted discursive operations that constitute policymaking’s objects (Freedman, 2010, p. 347; also Braman, 2006; Mansell, 2011; Shade, 2006; Streeter, 2013). Early Internet policymaking in Canada Globally, early networked communications policymaking tended to be dominated by the notion of information flows. This was true in developed countries like Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, but also in developing countries, for example in the MacBride Commission’s New World Information Order debates in the 1970s and 80s about how the global South could benefit from information flows (Braman, 2006). The idea behind this nascent regulation of Internet infrastructure is that, across the globe, equitable flows of information are important for prosperous, democratic societies. These societies became rebranded by such policy under the umbrella of “the information society” (Garnham, 1998). Consider the language of 1990s Internet policy in the United States, which revolved around information superhighways, as contained in frameworks like the National Information Infrastructure popularized by then–Vice President Al Gore. This highway framing established Internet regulation within the popular consciousness by figuring an apparently immaterial system in the image of material highways. It also foregrounded information as the chief property being transported along these highways, suggesting that this information would bring added value to communities and the economy (Flichy, 2007, p. 30). The idea of the economic value of information highways was thus implicated in their regulatory framing, coterminous with the contemporary widespread deregulation of telecommunications in the 1990s. Early Internet regulation thus became tethered to market approaches to policymaking, also understood as neoliberalism (Streeter, 2013, p. 493); simultaneously, neoliberal approaches to regulation became synonymous with the information society. The reasoning employed here invited a regulatory strategy with minimal government intervention, designed to support maximum competitive building out of Internet infrastructure. Strongly influenced by its Southern neighbor, Canada’s attempts at developing Internet policy in the 1990s similarly resulted in a largely neoliberal approach. Perhaps the most notorious Internet policy development in Canada at this time was the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), a committee representing commercial and non-commercial interests that was established by Industry Canada in 1994 to advise the government on a variety of Internet policy issues (Birdsall, 1999; McDowell & Buchwald, 1997). The main objectives of the IHAC were to ensure universal access, create jobs, and support cultural sovereignty, although the initial committee had no representatives from the cultural sector. Several other problems have been noted in subsequent critiques of the IHAC: it involved no public hearings and no unsolicited public interventions (McDowell & Buchwald, 1997, p. 710); most of its members were either industry representatives or had close ties to industry (Birdsall, 1999); and, despite the IHAC’s recommendations for improving access to information infrastructure, after the release of its final report in 1995, the government focused instead on growing e-commerce (Shade, 2006, p. 3). Even though there were concerted attempts made by non-industry voices to articulate a public interest perspective, the result of structural barriers in the IHAC process was that industry groups were overrepresented, and the resulting free market strategy enabled private interests to lead the development of Internet infrastructure in Canada. The lesson of the IHAC for Internet policymaking in Canada was that the series of structural issues undermining counter-neoliberal perspectives on the Internet were also discursive issues. For instance, the IHAC’s goal of promoting Canadian cultural sovereignty was undercut by the lack of cultural sector representatives on the council, alongside a discursive excision of cultural policy from telecommunications policy. This is apparent in the rhetoric of the IHAC’s reports, where culture and information were often collapsed into one category, communication, which had the function of eliding cultural visions of Internet infrastructure in favour of the economic promise of information flows. Here, information envelops culture; information is the property invested with the task of binding together the vast territory and diverse inhabitants of Canada into a single nation, constituted through Internet infrastructure as the basis for economic prosperity (Abramson, 2001, p. 305). In this way, early Internet policy in Canada was able to co-articulate nation building with neoliberalism, where Internet infrastructure would be developed most efficiently under industry guidance. This had a number of consequences for later Internet policymaking; two that figure prominently in the 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services were the failure of sufficient federal oversight to ensure that less-profitable communities and cultures were adequately connected, and the wedding of the public interest perspective to neoliberal individualism, such that the former was understood through the lens of consumer choice. The CRTC’s policymaking culture Since the time of the IHAC and the criticism of its closed structure, more emphasis has been placed on developing Internet policy through public hearings such as those at the CRTC. And yet, even these public hearings tend toward an overrepresentation of telecommunications industry players, and thus often result in non-interventionist regulatory strategies, as in the 1999 New Media Exemption Order that set a precedent for forbearance. Again, such a strategy might be seen as a consequence of information discourse, where the Internet is primarily information and therefore not aligned with traditional areas for federal regulation, such as broadcasting or telecommunications (broadly understood as telephony), so the government has a rationale for forbearing on regulation. Des Freedman has termed this stance a form of “negative policy”: non-intervention stemming from a reluctance to develop new rules and legislation, where any necessary intervention is minimal and non-intrusive (Freedman, 2010, p. 345). Such negative policy has discursive implications, in that it legitimizes a certain way of framing the Internet that positions it alongside free-market ideals (Pohle, Hösl, & Kniep, 2016, p. 11) and, specifically, according to techno-utopian and deterministic visions promulgated by the technology industry (Winseck, 1997). When examining today’s CRTC, the legacy of neoliberal, free-market approaches to information infrastructure still marks the culture of policymaking around the Internet as one of minimal intervention. But, during the tenure of Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais (2012–2017), the CRTC sought to at least discursively abrogate the negative policy strategy. The Review of Basic Telecommunications Services thus took place in a climate where the Commission actively attempted to resurrect a public interest perspective and position itself as more interventionist. Blais’s statement in a speech to Canadian Heritage, “Without the public’s participating in our work, we cannot serve the public interest” (Blais, 2012), established the rationale for the CRTC’s pursuit of greater public feedback into its proceedings. For example, the CRTC sought broader involvement in its activities by developing a five-minute guide to understanding and participating in CRTC proceedings, building its own online portal to receive informal comments during hearings, and forging dedicated links to academia, such as in the creation of the CRTC Prize for Excellence in Policy Research. Moreover, the CRTC discursively mobilized the public interest by articulating its proceedings in this period as conversations, as in 2014’s “Let’s Talk TV” and the alternate name and Twitter hashtag for the 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, “#TalkBroadband.” While there is undoubtedly a political rationale for inviting broader participation under the banner of the public interest, the CRTC also has to contend with its role as a regulator of telecommunications and broadcasting in a shifting media environment. Converged digital media complicates attempts at technological neutrality within the Telecommunications Act (1993) and Broadcasting Act (1991), pieces of legislation crafted well before issues such as digital Canadian content, differential pricing practices for Internet service, and wireless mobile communications came to challenge established regulatory frameworks. As distinctions between telecommunications and broadcasting become blurrier at the level of technology, and also at the level of consolidated industry players (Mansell, 2011, p. 22), increasingly interventionist or micromanagement approaches are demanded of federal regulators (Freedman, 2010, p. 346). While it is important to consider this broad regulatory climate across multiple institutions (Braman, 2006, p. 66), it is just as crucial to examine the everyday practices within government agencies as the prime movers of policymaking (Epstein, Katzenbach, & Musiani, 2016, p. 4). Here, I ask how the dynamics of the CRTC’s community of practice lead into the discourses constitutive of the Internet as a subject of policymaking in the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services. While the CRTC has been positioned as an institution relatively open to public participation around Internet policy issues at least since the IHAC (Shepherd, Taylor, & Middleton, 2014), its appeals toward participation might be viewed differently through a socio-technical understanding of its regulatory culture. Seeing culture as socio-technical is a perspective indebted to STS approaches to studying technologies like the Internet. Technical artifacts in this view are often figured as “boundary objects” (Star & Griesemer, 1989): objects that enable diverse groups with competing interests to communicate with each other, to cooperate, and to find consensus. In Internet policy, the technical artifact of the Internet works as a kind of boundary object between regulators, different stakeholders, and the public. While these various actors and groups come together through negotiations around a boundary object like the Internet, the meanings of the object are far from consistent among these different groups; meanings are constantly being fought over through the language that gets deployed. For instance, the idea of information highways in the 1990s could take on different meanings between publicness and privatization (Flichy, 2007), but the neoliberal information society meaning became legitimized through digital policymaking as a community of practice. As Geoff Bowker and Leigh Star (1999, p. 294) illustrate, boundary objects are constantly being negotiated within communities of practice. Communities of practice is a notion that comes from sociological studies of how people do things together through sets of interpersonal relations (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This concept is particularly useful for understanding policy processes, which tend to be cloaked in bureaucratic procedures that obscure the social relations that configure policymaking as an interpersonal, communicative endeavor. In this sense, the CRTC can be framed as a particular community of practice, in that it brings together actors from diverse formal organizations, institutions, and associations in the messy process of debating regulatory strategies. Considering governmentality through communities of practice represents an application of STS to policymaking that stresses the “doing” of Internet governance, as exemplified by the 2016 special issue of Internet Policy Review on this topic (Epstein et al., 2016). My understanding of the CRTC as a community of practice further draws on my own experience intervening in proceedings like the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services as an academic, where I have been learning through “legitimate peripheral participation” (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In attempting to gain legitimacy in the regulatory arena, an academic, like any other actor, must engage in the discursive work of negotiating the meaning of the boundary object at the center of policymaking: in this case, the Internet. As a boundary object, the Internet is particularly slippery, given its status as infrastructure, the often-invisible underpinning for social life. Thus, meanings of the Internet ascribed by policy goals that are variously economic, cultural, and social are in constant negotiation within a community of practice like the CRTC. The unequal status of interlocutors, however, entails the discursive legitimation of certain meanings over others according to preexisting power differentials. The Review of Basic Telecommunications Services Participation in the CRTC as a community of practice is bound by a number of formal and informal structures that delimit participation in its regulatory culture. In characterizing the 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, I focus on the formal structures of participation in the CRTC’s community of practice that render the CRTC a bounded domain in which policy discourses are not only debated but learned (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This domain supports an interpersonal, discursive process of ascribing broader social meanings to the Internet from a regulatory perspective, where certain discourses coalescing around the boundary object of the Internet come to also constitute legitimate participation in a public proceeding. Discursive framing in the Telecom Notice of Consultation This particular proceeding about basic service was important because of its priority status within the telecommunications regulatory regime. According to Canada’s Telecommunications Act (1993), section 7, “telecommunications performs an essential role in the maintenance of Canada’s identity and sovereignty.” Since its decision in 1999 to specifically establish the basic service objective in the context of a shift from monopoly to competition in telephone services, the CRTC has periodically reviewed the need for regulatory intervention in regions that cost more to serve (e.g., non-urban areas) to ensure basic service levels (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 1999). The 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services sought to update the basic service objective in light of differential access to the Internet. Universal Internet access has been a global policy goal since the 1990s highway metaphor for the Internet as essential infrastructure, as is further evident in the purchase of “the digital divide” in terms of social exclusion (e.g., Helsper, 2012). Yet, patterns of Internet access across Canada tend to replicate the earlier service asymmetries around telephony. In this light, the April 2015 Telecom Notice of Consultation that announced the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services stated: “As the regulator of Canada’s communications system, the Commission seeks to ensure that all Canadians have access to a world-class communications system and that they are able to participate in the digital economy” (CRTC, 2015, par. 5). At surface level, this pronouncement is consistent with universal service as “one of the most important objectives of telecoms policy—historically, politically, and in terms of the legitimacy of the regulatory framework” (Winseck, 1997, p. 223). Provisions about affordability, availability, and the needs and interests of all users in the Telecommunications Act (1993) stem from earlier ones in the Railway Act (1903), which are especially resonant for Canada, where the concept of connecting everyone across a vast geographical area has been a salient nation-building objective from railways through to telephony. The issue of sufficient Internet access across the country evokes the Innisian link between transportation and communication, a framing that further emphasizes the Internet’s status as essential infrastructure. And yet, the notice contains a number of apparent omissions in the way that this infrastructure is construed as a regulatory concern at this particular moment in the Internet’s development. For instance, in terms of technical parameters for articulating the boundary object of broadband Internet, satellite broadband delivery is mentioned for Northern regions, but other delivery mechanisms such as fiber are not discussed (e.g., Middleton, 2010). The patchy discussion of mechanisms for providing Internet access is matched by a reticence to address other kinds of equipment (modems, computers, software) that shape end-user experience (Gillett, 2000, p. 148), even though the notice observes that “Canadians are using Internet services from a greater number of advanced telecommunications devices (both fixed and mobile)” (CRTC, 2015, par. 9). Moreover, a focus on the technical aspects of Internet service provision are important, but not sufficient to address access inequalities according to more nuanced accounts of multiple digital divides (e.g., Clement & Shade, 2000); such perspectives open out beyond a distributive paradigm of access to consider infrastructural ecologies around the boundary object of the Internet, including intangibles such as social supports, digital literacies, software applications, and content. In this sense, the notice’s language seemed to orient more around the promotional hashtag, #TalkBroadband, than around the complexities of considering how the Internet could replace telephony as the subject of the basic service objective. To return to its central mandate—“the Commission seeks to ensure that all Canadians have access to a world-class communications system and that they are able to participate in the digital economy” (CRTC, 2015, par. 5)—it is crucial to note that the proceeding also co-articulated the digital economy as a key social outcome of providing universal access. This framing configures the Internet as a boundary object in artificially narrow terms by setting economic interests above broader social, cultural, and citizenship implications of equitable infrastructural development. This narrowing, in turn, limits participation in the policy debate that encircles the Internet by foregrounding economic framings as more legitimate. The Internet as boundary object thus becomes less amenable to diverse interpretation by members of the CRTC’s supposedly broad, public community of practice. In particular, what the digital economy outlook achieves is a discursive framing of the Internet that contains its own answers to how regulatory problems should be solved (Braman, 2004): here, through market competition. As such, the notice bounds the domain of this proceeding to a technologically deterministic position that has long enabled the CRTC to “conceal the politics involved in drawing lines between communication services made universally available to citizens and those excluded from public service aims” (Winseck, 1997). Such a position serves the interests of policymakers who attempt to cast their own legitimacy as apolitical, just as it serves the interests of private telcos seeking negative policy strategies that reduce the burden of regulations preventing them from serving only the most profitable markets. Negotiations of legitimacy in the interventions and hearing The notice, as the first step in the formal consultation process that defines a proceeding like the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, framed the issue of basic service in narrow, economic terms. Through this framing, the notice enacted the first instance of legitimizing certain discourses around the Internet as a boundary object, which established the shape of the community of practice as one of restricted participation. The next major stage is the submission of intervention documents by various parties, which can offer the opportunity to push back against such restriction. Interventions were submitted to the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services file on the CRTC’s public website in July 2015. Of the 302 interventions, 216 were from private individuals who often wrote their comments within a text box. Other interveners instead submitted their interventions as formal reports with appendices, such as the 36 interventions from municipal, regional, and provincial governments; the 28 from Internet service providers; the 14 from non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups; and the 8 from academics. This is a relatively strong set of interventions for a federal proceeding and shows the range of interveners participating in this community of practice. While the interventions offered diverse perspectives, they nonetheless enacted a highly formalized mode of participation. The text box entries from individuals appear less legitimate when contrasted against the formal, multi-page documents in numbered paragraphs, accompanied by a series of appendices. Legitimacy is also directly conferred via association with a larger organization; so, for example, an individual’s comments in a text box don’t carry the weight of incumbent Bell’s 92-page intervention and 6 appendices, including a 40-page study commissioned by an independent researcher. A clear expertise and resource divide marks this stage of the proceeding, which is theoretically open to anyone but in practice favors larger, better-resourced organizations. This is important, because it means that these organizations shape the CRTC’s framing of the Internet as a boundary object at further stages of the proceeding. Both procedurally and ideologically, the CRTC must select a only subset of issues to address at the subsequent hearing (Blake, 2011, p. 18); as such, the specific issues chosen for further public debate are often driven by incumbents who have a significantly greater amount of legal expertise and financial resources than other interveners. The divide between larger organizations, especially incumbent telcos, and all other interveners was rendered even more starkly in the in-person oral hearing for the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services. The hearing took place over three weeks in April 2016, a significantly longer period than the typical hearing length of five days, and was the main stage for real-time deliberation in presentations from interveners, followed by question periods by the CRTC Chairman Blais, the Vice-President Telecoms Peter Menzies, and three regional commissioners. The quasi-judicial setup of testimony and questioning evidences the highly procedural nature of the CRTC as a community of practice. The barriers to legitimate participation in the hearing extend beyond its formalities to the fact that it is held in Gatineau, Québec, on regular business days, meaning that to even be present in the conference room is often difficult for non-specialists or those located away from the center of Canadian federal government. Parties that can attend the hearing and navigate its procedures best are those most-specialized and -resourced regulatory divisions of incumbent providers. For example, consider the moment when representatives from incumbent carrier Telus approached the hearing table: six of its Vice-Presidents, the Director of Regulatory Affairs, a technology strategist and two commissioned researchers, all experts in the legal and business implications of telecommunications regulation and all White, middle-aged men. The moment provoked CRTC Commissioner for Manitoba and Saskatchewan Candice Molnar’s statement, “Good afternoon. I don’t normally make these comments, but it is a bit intimidating for me to look at ten men in suits” (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, para. 7863). Two key attributes of the CRTC’s community of practice were made visible here: (a) the capacity for industry representatives to exert disproportionate legal expertise in a public forum, and thereby construe an economic position as a political one, in Wendy Brown’s (2015) terms; and (b) the reinforcement of symbolic power asymmetries that have long marked public deliberation as an exclusionary practice based on gender, race, class, and age. This moment was unique for bringing the divides that often underlie Internet policymaking into stark relief within the particular context of the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, where the premise of universal service is intimately tied with participatory dimensions of democracy (Winseck, 1997, p. 223). Narrow definitions of universal service, as in the orienting hashtag #TalkBroadband, reflect the problems of a digital economy framing that elides complex notions of democratic citizenship to instead follow a neoliberal imperative that positions the public interest as consumer choice. Moreover, the digital economy framing exerts procedural and discursive pressures on the community of practice that constitutes Internet policymaking at the CRTC, by conferring special status on corporations as economic-turned-political actors who assume speech rights (Brown, 2015, p. 155). As shown in the way that Telus, for example, mobilized expert testimony from commissioned researchers, this special status implicates what counts as evidence in quasi-judicial testimony: in this case, politically welcome, industry-funded, quantitative data on markets, market competition, and legal idiosyncrasies (e.g., Braman, 2008, p. 435). This moment showcased the way that incumbent carriers like Telus could mobilize disproportionate material and symbolic resources (Freedman, 2010, p. 349), in ways that both shaped the scope of the CRTC’s deliberative process and the contours of its community of practice. This capacity of incumbent telecommunications companies to dominate the framing of policy issues challenges the pluralist view of public policy as a transparent and egalitarian process, a view that the CRTC has promoted in recent years. In the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, this stance of the CRTC was reinforced in the unprecedented speech made by the Chairman just before the lunch recess on the first day of the second week of the hearing. He framed the speech as a stock-taking of week one, but it was also deliberately positioned at the point just before the large incumbent providers like Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and Quebecor were slated to present. Chairman Blais focused on the need for a national digital strategy that would support the citizenship implications of Internet connectivity, as enshrined in the Telecommunications Act (1993). As Chairman Blais asserted regarding the national digital strategy: [I]t strikes us that this proceeding launched over 12 months ago may very well be the last best chance to get it right. A chance to create together a coherent national broadband strategy through an open and transparent process based on evidence from all Canadians, achieved to the extent possible through consensus, and implement it through shared responsibility. (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, para. 7604) Here, the Chairman sought to directly reinforce openness and transparency just before the incumbents would dominate the hearing discourse in the ways noted above. He also linked the openness of the CRTC’s public process to the ideal of consensus, suggesting a deliberative orientation of the proceeding despite the connection to the national digital strategy, an initiative of the former Industry Canada that was ultimately received poorly and suffered familiar problems in its lack of a diverse consultation, particularly among Indigenous groups (McMahon, 2011, p. 121). In calling out Industry Canada, moreover, the Chairman sought to efface the CRTC’s own political stakes in the issue of determining basic service. This effacement was reinforced by his proclamation that the essential status of broadband Internet was a “self-evident truth” to which all interveners adhere and which should not be subject to any further debate (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, pars. 7564–7566). The discursive operation here of claiming a self-evident truth effectively renders the issue of basic service to be apolitical, and further appears brazen in the middle of a hearing designed to solicit broad public input on the role of broadband Internet in Canadian society. As an unusual interruption of public hearing procedure, the Chairman’s entire speech might be interpreted in line with the impression of Blais as a showman, a term used in mainstream press coverage of the CRTC to suggest how his style of interventionist micromanagement was enveloped in dramatic gestures (e.g., Jackson, 2016). What showmanship also implies, however, is that the Chairman’s repeated promotion of an open and transparent deliberative process that invites the articulation of a public interest perspective may also be a dramatic gesture, a public relations exercise. Consider a moment in the hearing when members of anti-poverty advocacy group ACORN testified about their personal struggles with affordable broadband Internet access. They told compelling stories about how the stresses of poverty are compounded by disability, chronic health concerns, domestic abuse, immigration, mental illness, unemployment, and so on, as intimately tied to the issue of Internet access. Here, the boundary object of the Internet was configured much more broadly than the digital economy version, suggesting an opportunity for consensus building within the domain of the CRTC as a reasonably open and public community of practice. In line with the CRTC’s stated ideal of openness, this testimony garnered applause (which is unusual in a CRTC hearing), as well as a special commendation from the Chairman, who called the ACORN members courageous and noted that “normally our hearings are populated by lawyers, economists, accountants, public relations firms and it was certainly refreshing for you to be here to remind us and to keep us real” (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, para. 6130). Even while the ACORN members were being praised, according to the CRTC’s ideal of itself as a public institution that welcomes input from diverse groups of Canadians, the rhetorical strategy of contrasting interveners who are “real” against those who typically appear at CRTC hearings insinuated a kind of condescension. The condescending address toward ACORN’s members was made further apparent in their questioning, which implicitly positioned them as failed digital-economy subjects. As Vice-President Telecom Peter Menzies said to ACORN, the purpose of the hearing was to distinguish between basic services (needs) and less essential uses of the Internet (wants). He noted that he had been constructing a table of needs versus wants during the personal stories of ACORN members, singling out one person’s story as an example: [I]f they could [afford the Internet], they could do job search and enjoy other services like search engines, games, and Facebook. It was obvious this person is challenged financially and job search is a need, but some people might categorize games and Facebook as wants. (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, pars. 5888–5889) By demonizing Facebook and games as wants, Menzies mobilized myths about poverty through Brown’s (2015) version of “homo oeconomicus,” a rational agent governed by choice. As a parallel to the way that corporations exert disproportionate speech rights in the public arena of the proceedings, here citizens bear the implications of how an economic position gets constituted as the most legible political position in reverse. Moreover, as Robin Mansell (1988, p. 246) has argued, trying to distinguish between basic and added-value services misses the point that all communication services add value. By framing added value as wants in the questioning of ACORN members, these added-value services further become tethered to income, thus exacerbating access inequalities. The needs-versus-wants framing that arose over the course of the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services oral hearing offers a prime example of the way certain discourses become legitimized through a community of practice where interlocutors are compelled to take on simplified positions through the constraints of the quasi-judicial environment, which in turn implicates attempts to fix certain meanings of the Internet. It is a particularly significant example because needs-versus-wants is a legacy framing that has marked regulatory institutions seeking to delineate objectively what falls under their jurisdictions and what doesn’t, even though “such distinctions are static and arbitrary” (Mansell, 1988, p. 245). The underlying purpose of these arbitrary distinctions is to position the determination of basic services as apolitical, when they in fact represent a chief mode of governmentality. If governmentality can be understood as “the cultural habits and predispositions out of which modes of governance and government arise, and by which they are sustained” (Braman, 2008, p. 433), the process by which governments problematize issues enacts a politics (Freedman, 2010). This is achieved by establishing who participates in decision making and what goals and solutions are considered legitimate (Braman, 2004, p. 154). The way that this happened during the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, from the digital economy framing in the notice through to the performance of expertise in the interventions and the distillation of complex arguments into slogans in the oral hearing, shows how the CRTC’s public process can be seen as a succession of discursive legitimations that reinforce existing power differentials. Conclusion: Discursive implications So, how did the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services conclude, if its terms were set through the #TalkBroadband hashtag and its interveners were legitimized or delegitimized according to the discursive structures of participation? The final formal stage of the proceeding was the ruling, handed down on December 21, 2016, that broadband Internet is a basic service. Effectively, this changed the CRTC’s basic service obligation from telephony to broadband, and set higher speed (50/10 Mbps) and coverage (100% by 2031) targets for broadband access. But, as critics swiftly pointed out, the designation of broadband Internet as basic service doesn’t have a substantial material impact for most Canadians, who already consider Internet access to be essential (e.g., Geist, 2016). Moreover, while the new higher targets for broadband penetration are important, there is no plan for how the government will meet those targets. Finally, the ruling lacked a clear acknowledgement of the key issue that was raised by individual interveners and advocacy groups like ACORN throughout the proceeding, which was the affordability of broadband services (Lewis, 2016). The deficiencies of the final ruling, despite its apparently positive headline that the Internet is now considered basic, encapsulates how the current culture at the CRTC elides systemic problems with policy participation. As the examples analyzed in this article demonstrate, a series of discursive, judicial, technocratic, and gendered, classed, and raced structures modulate the legitimation of certain discourses over others. In my own experience as an intervener with the relative privilege of an institutional affiliation, being read as a legitimate participant requires a long period of initiation into the opaque particularities of the CRTC as a culture, a community of practice. This kind of learning of how to articulate a position within debate, which is central to what occurs between people within communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), happened through the hearing in particular, where the needs-versus-wants framing arose in response to testimony that fell outside of the digital economy framing of the Internet as boundary object. The case study shows how reading the CRTC as a community of practice goes beyond a view of interveners as stakeholders to see how their positions are conditioned by discursive framings handed down by the regulator itself alongside the post-hoc positioning that takes place in the policy domain. In this case, the discourses about the Internet as a basic service that ended up being legitimized throughout the proceeding were overly narrow and resulted in a relatively toothless ruling, the primary function of which was to maintain the legitimacy of the regulator itself as an apolitical institutional body. The broader consequences for how this proceeding played out speak to more widespread issues in policymaking generally. If policymaking can be seen as a community of practice, it is one in which different members of the community are structurally prevented from having equal footing. Despite attempts made by regulators who ostensibly work in the public interest to provide mechanisms for public participation, conventional designs for enacting participation within the bureaucratic processes of such a domain are more concerned with offering participation than with taking citizen proposals seriously (Stein, 2013). This means that what happens in a space like the basic service hearing is more akin to a shoring up of political power that only further disavows systemic inequalities; in the case of this proceeding, these were primarily inequalities around income and the needs of specific communities such as rural, remote, Northern, Indigenous, senior, and differently-abled Canadians. The chance to articulate a public interest perspective in the Canadian context became reduced to needs-versus-wants, reinforcing a neoliberal version of the public interest as consumer choice. This paper has offered a preliminary proposal for applying STS concepts to the domain of Internet policy in order to open space for critique of how the process of policymaking rests on the Internet as a boundary object over which competing discourses play out. Further research from such a perspective might go even deeper into the layers of policymaking as a community of practice beyond the visible level of public discourse, into those non-transparent, hidden moments that happen outside of the consultation space (Freedman, 2010), as well as the deliberately boring technical and legal policy jargon that prevents public scrutiny (Lentz, 2009). Further examination of these three layers—legitimate public discourses, hidden discourses, and boring discourses—shows the potential of an STS perspective focused on socio-technical relations between people and technologies, constructed through language, to dissect the texture of Internet governance cultures (Bowker & Star, 1999, p. 41). Such analysis is critical for those invested in the ideal of regulation in the interests of diverse publics. References Abramson, B. D. ( 2001). Media policy after regulation? International Journal of Cultural Studies , 4( 3), 301– 326. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Birdsall, W. F. ( 1999). Policy and participation on the Canadian information highway. First Monday , 4( 3). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/653 Blais, J. P. ( 2012, October 4). Speech to the standing committee on Canadian heritage. Retrieved from http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/com200/2012/s121004.htm Blake, S. ( 2011). Managing the mosaic: Diversity of voices and deliberative policy making in English Canadian media. Master’s thesis, Ryerson University. Retrieved from Ryerson University Digital Repository. Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. ( 1999). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Braman, S. ( 2004). Where has media policy gone? Defining the field in the twenty-first century. Communication Law and Policy , 9( 2), 153– 182. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Braman, S. ( 2006). Change of state: Information, policy, and power . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Braman, S. ( 2008). Policy research in an evidence-averse environment. International Journal of Communication , 2( 17), 433– 449. Brown, W. ( 2015). Undoing the demos . Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books. Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. ( 1999). Telecom decision CRTC 99-16: Telephone service to high-cost serving areas. 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Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of International Communication Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Communication, Culture & Critique Oxford University Press

Discursive Legitimation in the Cultures of Internet Policymaking

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Abstract

Abstract A socio-technical lens on the development of the Internet suggests that policymaking plays a constitutive role in the meanings of technology and its uses. In the Canadian context, I trace how early “information society” discourses underlying negative policy strategies continued into current discursive legitimations of the Internet as essential communications infrastructure. The federal regulator’s 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services public proceedings forms a case study that highlights how certain discourses become legitimized and others recede, ultimately resulting in a maintenance of the regulatory status quo despite the appearance of a public interest imperative. Introduction: Socio-technics and policy Understandings of the Internet as socio-technical argue that technology simultaneously shapes and is shaped by social relations (e.g., Wyatt, 2004). One key social relation for privileging certain visions of Internet technology, its users, and its uses is telecommunications policy, a domain invested with the legitimacy of the government as a public institution (Sarikakis, 2004). This article offers a case study of how telecommunications policy gets made within a particular community of practice: the proceedings of Canada’s federal communications regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Framing the CRTC’s regulatory environment through a Science and Technology Studies (STS) perspective as a community of practice enables an examination of how different players in the debate articulate their positions around the “boundary object” of the Internet (Star & Griesemer, 1989). The idea of a boundary object sees the Internet as a kind of imagined technology, overlaid with social values that are malleable according to political exigencies that exist in tension among diverse members of a social world or “community of practice.” Within the community of practice of the CRTC, I argue, competing discourses about the Internet’s social values tend to reinforce the power disparities between interlocutors. Viewing policymaking as a process, through the lens of STS concepts, opens up new ways of charting how power gets discursively legitimized via competing images of the Internet. In 2015 and 2016, the CRTC conducted the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services to update its basic service obligation: its duty to ensure that Canadians across the country benefit from adequate service levels despite providers’ concentration on lower-cost, urban areas. Setting policy for basic or universal service is one of the fundamental mandates of any federal regulatory body, since ensuring that citizens, groups, businesses, and governments can communicate with each other underlies both national prosperity and the broader public interest. Yet most studies of basic service policies tend to evaluate the impact and implications of regulatory measures, rather than the way these measures arise from specific policymaking contexts (e.g., Gillett, 2000; Winseck, 1997). The current moment, in which the Internet is framed as central to contemporary communications infrastructure, invites a more socio-technical perspective on basic service regulation that looks at the process of articulating Internet policy as central to the process of imagining the Internet. A focus on the process rather than the product of the CRTC’s basic service consultations highlights how specific sets of social relations within the community of practice at the CRTC legitimate certain discourses about the Internet and what constitutes basic services. These discourses are crucial to critique, since they fundamentally constitute participation in the CRTC’s culture and its governmentality. This approach is indebted to the work of critical policy scholars, whose research intervenes in and challenges dominant policy frames by highlighting the taken-for-granted discursive operations that constitute policymaking’s objects (Freedman, 2010, p. 347; also Braman, 2006; Mansell, 2011; Shade, 2006; Streeter, 2013). Early Internet policymaking in Canada Globally, early networked communications policymaking tended to be dominated by the notion of information flows. This was true in developed countries like Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, but also in developing countries, for example in the MacBride Commission’s New World Information Order debates in the 1970s and 80s about how the global South could benefit from information flows (Braman, 2006). The idea behind this nascent regulation of Internet infrastructure is that, across the globe, equitable flows of information are important for prosperous, democratic societies. These societies became rebranded by such policy under the umbrella of “the information society” (Garnham, 1998). Consider the language of 1990s Internet policy in the United States, which revolved around information superhighways, as contained in frameworks like the National Information Infrastructure popularized by then–Vice President Al Gore. This highway framing established Internet regulation within the popular consciousness by figuring an apparently immaterial system in the image of material highways. It also foregrounded information as the chief property being transported along these highways, suggesting that this information would bring added value to communities and the economy (Flichy, 2007, p. 30). The idea of the economic value of information highways was thus implicated in their regulatory framing, coterminous with the contemporary widespread deregulation of telecommunications in the 1990s. Early Internet regulation thus became tethered to market approaches to policymaking, also understood as neoliberalism (Streeter, 2013, p. 493); simultaneously, neoliberal approaches to regulation became synonymous with the information society. The reasoning employed here invited a regulatory strategy with minimal government intervention, designed to support maximum competitive building out of Internet infrastructure. Strongly influenced by its Southern neighbor, Canada’s attempts at developing Internet policy in the 1990s similarly resulted in a largely neoliberal approach. Perhaps the most notorious Internet policy development in Canada at this time was the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), a committee representing commercial and non-commercial interests that was established by Industry Canada in 1994 to advise the government on a variety of Internet policy issues (Birdsall, 1999; McDowell & Buchwald, 1997). The main objectives of the IHAC were to ensure universal access, create jobs, and support cultural sovereignty, although the initial committee had no representatives from the cultural sector. Several other problems have been noted in subsequent critiques of the IHAC: it involved no public hearings and no unsolicited public interventions (McDowell & Buchwald, 1997, p. 710); most of its members were either industry representatives or had close ties to industry (Birdsall, 1999); and, despite the IHAC’s recommendations for improving access to information infrastructure, after the release of its final report in 1995, the government focused instead on growing e-commerce (Shade, 2006, p. 3). Even though there were concerted attempts made by non-industry voices to articulate a public interest perspective, the result of structural barriers in the IHAC process was that industry groups were overrepresented, and the resulting free market strategy enabled private interests to lead the development of Internet infrastructure in Canada. The lesson of the IHAC for Internet policymaking in Canada was that the series of structural issues undermining counter-neoliberal perspectives on the Internet were also discursive issues. For instance, the IHAC’s goal of promoting Canadian cultural sovereignty was undercut by the lack of cultural sector representatives on the council, alongside a discursive excision of cultural policy from telecommunications policy. This is apparent in the rhetoric of the IHAC’s reports, where culture and information were often collapsed into one category, communication, which had the function of eliding cultural visions of Internet infrastructure in favour of the economic promise of information flows. Here, information envelops culture; information is the property invested with the task of binding together the vast territory and diverse inhabitants of Canada into a single nation, constituted through Internet infrastructure as the basis for economic prosperity (Abramson, 2001, p. 305). In this way, early Internet policy in Canada was able to co-articulate nation building with neoliberalism, where Internet infrastructure would be developed most efficiently under industry guidance. This had a number of consequences for later Internet policymaking; two that figure prominently in the 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services were the failure of sufficient federal oversight to ensure that less-profitable communities and cultures were adequately connected, and the wedding of the public interest perspective to neoliberal individualism, such that the former was understood through the lens of consumer choice. The CRTC’s policymaking culture Since the time of the IHAC and the criticism of its closed structure, more emphasis has been placed on developing Internet policy through public hearings such as those at the CRTC. And yet, even these public hearings tend toward an overrepresentation of telecommunications industry players, and thus often result in non-interventionist regulatory strategies, as in the 1999 New Media Exemption Order that set a precedent for forbearance. Again, such a strategy might be seen as a consequence of information discourse, where the Internet is primarily information and therefore not aligned with traditional areas for federal regulation, such as broadcasting or telecommunications (broadly understood as telephony), so the government has a rationale for forbearing on regulation. Des Freedman has termed this stance a form of “negative policy”: non-intervention stemming from a reluctance to develop new rules and legislation, where any necessary intervention is minimal and non-intrusive (Freedman, 2010, p. 345). Such negative policy has discursive implications, in that it legitimizes a certain way of framing the Internet that positions it alongside free-market ideals (Pohle, Hösl, & Kniep, 2016, p. 11) and, specifically, according to techno-utopian and deterministic visions promulgated by the technology industry (Winseck, 1997). When examining today’s CRTC, the legacy of neoliberal, free-market approaches to information infrastructure still marks the culture of policymaking around the Internet as one of minimal intervention. But, during the tenure of Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais (2012–2017), the CRTC sought to at least discursively abrogate the negative policy strategy. The Review of Basic Telecommunications Services thus took place in a climate where the Commission actively attempted to resurrect a public interest perspective and position itself as more interventionist. Blais’s statement in a speech to Canadian Heritage, “Without the public’s participating in our work, we cannot serve the public interest” (Blais, 2012), established the rationale for the CRTC’s pursuit of greater public feedback into its proceedings. For example, the CRTC sought broader involvement in its activities by developing a five-minute guide to understanding and participating in CRTC proceedings, building its own online portal to receive informal comments during hearings, and forging dedicated links to academia, such as in the creation of the CRTC Prize for Excellence in Policy Research. Moreover, the CRTC discursively mobilized the public interest by articulating its proceedings in this period as conversations, as in 2014’s “Let’s Talk TV” and the alternate name and Twitter hashtag for the 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, “#TalkBroadband.” While there is undoubtedly a political rationale for inviting broader participation under the banner of the public interest, the CRTC also has to contend with its role as a regulator of telecommunications and broadcasting in a shifting media environment. Converged digital media complicates attempts at technological neutrality within the Telecommunications Act (1993) and Broadcasting Act (1991), pieces of legislation crafted well before issues such as digital Canadian content, differential pricing practices for Internet service, and wireless mobile communications came to challenge established regulatory frameworks. As distinctions between telecommunications and broadcasting become blurrier at the level of technology, and also at the level of consolidated industry players (Mansell, 2011, p. 22), increasingly interventionist or micromanagement approaches are demanded of federal regulators (Freedman, 2010, p. 346). While it is important to consider this broad regulatory climate across multiple institutions (Braman, 2006, p. 66), it is just as crucial to examine the everyday practices within government agencies as the prime movers of policymaking (Epstein, Katzenbach, & Musiani, 2016, p. 4). Here, I ask how the dynamics of the CRTC’s community of practice lead into the discourses constitutive of the Internet as a subject of policymaking in the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services. While the CRTC has been positioned as an institution relatively open to public participation around Internet policy issues at least since the IHAC (Shepherd, Taylor, & Middleton, 2014), its appeals toward participation might be viewed differently through a socio-technical understanding of its regulatory culture. Seeing culture as socio-technical is a perspective indebted to STS approaches to studying technologies like the Internet. Technical artifacts in this view are often figured as “boundary objects” (Star & Griesemer, 1989): objects that enable diverse groups with competing interests to communicate with each other, to cooperate, and to find consensus. In Internet policy, the technical artifact of the Internet works as a kind of boundary object between regulators, different stakeholders, and the public. While these various actors and groups come together through negotiations around a boundary object like the Internet, the meanings of the object are far from consistent among these different groups; meanings are constantly being fought over through the language that gets deployed. For instance, the idea of information highways in the 1990s could take on different meanings between publicness and privatization (Flichy, 2007), but the neoliberal information society meaning became legitimized through digital policymaking as a community of practice. As Geoff Bowker and Leigh Star (1999, p. 294) illustrate, boundary objects are constantly being negotiated within communities of practice. Communities of practice is a notion that comes from sociological studies of how people do things together through sets of interpersonal relations (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This concept is particularly useful for understanding policy processes, which tend to be cloaked in bureaucratic procedures that obscure the social relations that configure policymaking as an interpersonal, communicative endeavor. In this sense, the CRTC can be framed as a particular community of practice, in that it brings together actors from diverse formal organizations, institutions, and associations in the messy process of debating regulatory strategies. Considering governmentality through communities of practice represents an application of STS to policymaking that stresses the “doing” of Internet governance, as exemplified by the 2016 special issue of Internet Policy Review on this topic (Epstein et al., 2016). My understanding of the CRTC as a community of practice further draws on my own experience intervening in proceedings like the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services as an academic, where I have been learning through “legitimate peripheral participation” (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In attempting to gain legitimacy in the regulatory arena, an academic, like any other actor, must engage in the discursive work of negotiating the meaning of the boundary object at the center of policymaking: in this case, the Internet. As a boundary object, the Internet is particularly slippery, given its status as infrastructure, the often-invisible underpinning for social life. Thus, meanings of the Internet ascribed by policy goals that are variously economic, cultural, and social are in constant negotiation within a community of practice like the CRTC. The unequal status of interlocutors, however, entails the discursive legitimation of certain meanings over others according to preexisting power differentials. The Review of Basic Telecommunications Services Participation in the CRTC as a community of practice is bound by a number of formal and informal structures that delimit participation in its regulatory culture. In characterizing the 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, I focus on the formal structures of participation in the CRTC’s community of practice that render the CRTC a bounded domain in which policy discourses are not only debated but learned (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This domain supports an interpersonal, discursive process of ascribing broader social meanings to the Internet from a regulatory perspective, where certain discourses coalescing around the boundary object of the Internet come to also constitute legitimate participation in a public proceeding. Discursive framing in the Telecom Notice of Consultation This particular proceeding about basic service was important because of its priority status within the telecommunications regulatory regime. According to Canada’s Telecommunications Act (1993), section 7, “telecommunications performs an essential role in the maintenance of Canada’s identity and sovereignty.” Since its decision in 1999 to specifically establish the basic service objective in the context of a shift from monopoly to competition in telephone services, the CRTC has periodically reviewed the need for regulatory intervention in regions that cost more to serve (e.g., non-urban areas) to ensure basic service levels (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 1999). The 2015–2016 Review of Basic Telecommunications Services sought to update the basic service objective in light of differential access to the Internet. Universal Internet access has been a global policy goal since the 1990s highway metaphor for the Internet as essential infrastructure, as is further evident in the purchase of “the digital divide” in terms of social exclusion (e.g., Helsper, 2012). Yet, patterns of Internet access across Canada tend to replicate the earlier service asymmetries around telephony. In this light, the April 2015 Telecom Notice of Consultation that announced the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services stated: “As the regulator of Canada’s communications system, the Commission seeks to ensure that all Canadians have access to a world-class communications system and that they are able to participate in the digital economy” (CRTC, 2015, par. 5). At surface level, this pronouncement is consistent with universal service as “one of the most important objectives of telecoms policy—historically, politically, and in terms of the legitimacy of the regulatory framework” (Winseck, 1997, p. 223). Provisions about affordability, availability, and the needs and interests of all users in the Telecommunications Act (1993) stem from earlier ones in the Railway Act (1903), which are especially resonant for Canada, where the concept of connecting everyone across a vast geographical area has been a salient nation-building objective from railways through to telephony. The issue of sufficient Internet access across the country evokes the Innisian link between transportation and communication, a framing that further emphasizes the Internet’s status as essential infrastructure. And yet, the notice contains a number of apparent omissions in the way that this infrastructure is construed as a regulatory concern at this particular moment in the Internet’s development. For instance, in terms of technical parameters for articulating the boundary object of broadband Internet, satellite broadband delivery is mentioned for Northern regions, but other delivery mechanisms such as fiber are not discussed (e.g., Middleton, 2010). The patchy discussion of mechanisms for providing Internet access is matched by a reticence to address other kinds of equipment (modems, computers, software) that shape end-user experience (Gillett, 2000, p. 148), even though the notice observes that “Canadians are using Internet services from a greater number of advanced telecommunications devices (both fixed and mobile)” (CRTC, 2015, par. 9). Moreover, a focus on the technical aspects of Internet service provision are important, but not sufficient to address access inequalities according to more nuanced accounts of multiple digital divides (e.g., Clement & Shade, 2000); such perspectives open out beyond a distributive paradigm of access to consider infrastructural ecologies around the boundary object of the Internet, including intangibles such as social supports, digital literacies, software applications, and content. In this sense, the notice’s language seemed to orient more around the promotional hashtag, #TalkBroadband, than around the complexities of considering how the Internet could replace telephony as the subject of the basic service objective. To return to its central mandate—“the Commission seeks to ensure that all Canadians have access to a world-class communications system and that they are able to participate in the digital economy” (CRTC, 2015, par. 5)—it is crucial to note that the proceeding also co-articulated the digital economy as a key social outcome of providing universal access. This framing configures the Internet as a boundary object in artificially narrow terms by setting economic interests above broader social, cultural, and citizenship implications of equitable infrastructural development. This narrowing, in turn, limits participation in the policy debate that encircles the Internet by foregrounding economic framings as more legitimate. The Internet as boundary object thus becomes less amenable to diverse interpretation by members of the CRTC’s supposedly broad, public community of practice. In particular, what the digital economy outlook achieves is a discursive framing of the Internet that contains its own answers to how regulatory problems should be solved (Braman, 2004): here, through market competition. As such, the notice bounds the domain of this proceeding to a technologically deterministic position that has long enabled the CRTC to “conceal the politics involved in drawing lines between communication services made universally available to citizens and those excluded from public service aims” (Winseck, 1997). Such a position serves the interests of policymakers who attempt to cast their own legitimacy as apolitical, just as it serves the interests of private telcos seeking negative policy strategies that reduce the burden of regulations preventing them from serving only the most profitable markets. Negotiations of legitimacy in the interventions and hearing The notice, as the first step in the formal consultation process that defines a proceeding like the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, framed the issue of basic service in narrow, economic terms. Through this framing, the notice enacted the first instance of legitimizing certain discourses around the Internet as a boundary object, which established the shape of the community of practice as one of restricted participation. The next major stage is the submission of intervention documents by various parties, which can offer the opportunity to push back against such restriction. Interventions were submitted to the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services file on the CRTC’s public website in July 2015. Of the 302 interventions, 216 were from private individuals who often wrote their comments within a text box. Other interveners instead submitted their interventions as formal reports with appendices, such as the 36 interventions from municipal, regional, and provincial governments; the 28 from Internet service providers; the 14 from non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups; and the 8 from academics. This is a relatively strong set of interventions for a federal proceeding and shows the range of interveners participating in this community of practice. While the interventions offered diverse perspectives, they nonetheless enacted a highly formalized mode of participation. The text box entries from individuals appear less legitimate when contrasted against the formal, multi-page documents in numbered paragraphs, accompanied by a series of appendices. Legitimacy is also directly conferred via association with a larger organization; so, for example, an individual’s comments in a text box don’t carry the weight of incumbent Bell’s 92-page intervention and 6 appendices, including a 40-page study commissioned by an independent researcher. A clear expertise and resource divide marks this stage of the proceeding, which is theoretically open to anyone but in practice favors larger, better-resourced organizations. This is important, because it means that these organizations shape the CRTC’s framing of the Internet as a boundary object at further stages of the proceeding. Both procedurally and ideologically, the CRTC must select a only subset of issues to address at the subsequent hearing (Blake, 2011, p. 18); as such, the specific issues chosen for further public debate are often driven by incumbents who have a significantly greater amount of legal expertise and financial resources than other interveners. The divide between larger organizations, especially incumbent telcos, and all other interveners was rendered even more starkly in the in-person oral hearing for the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services. The hearing took place over three weeks in April 2016, a significantly longer period than the typical hearing length of five days, and was the main stage for real-time deliberation in presentations from interveners, followed by question periods by the CRTC Chairman Blais, the Vice-President Telecoms Peter Menzies, and three regional commissioners. The quasi-judicial setup of testimony and questioning evidences the highly procedural nature of the CRTC as a community of practice. The barriers to legitimate participation in the hearing extend beyond its formalities to the fact that it is held in Gatineau, Québec, on regular business days, meaning that to even be present in the conference room is often difficult for non-specialists or those located away from the center of Canadian federal government. Parties that can attend the hearing and navigate its procedures best are those most-specialized and -resourced regulatory divisions of incumbent providers. For example, consider the moment when representatives from incumbent carrier Telus approached the hearing table: six of its Vice-Presidents, the Director of Regulatory Affairs, a technology strategist and two commissioned researchers, all experts in the legal and business implications of telecommunications regulation and all White, middle-aged men. The moment provoked CRTC Commissioner for Manitoba and Saskatchewan Candice Molnar’s statement, “Good afternoon. I don’t normally make these comments, but it is a bit intimidating for me to look at ten men in suits” (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, para. 7863). Two key attributes of the CRTC’s community of practice were made visible here: (a) the capacity for industry representatives to exert disproportionate legal expertise in a public forum, and thereby construe an economic position as a political one, in Wendy Brown’s (2015) terms; and (b) the reinforcement of symbolic power asymmetries that have long marked public deliberation as an exclusionary practice based on gender, race, class, and age. This moment was unique for bringing the divides that often underlie Internet policymaking into stark relief within the particular context of the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, where the premise of universal service is intimately tied with participatory dimensions of democracy (Winseck, 1997, p. 223). Narrow definitions of universal service, as in the orienting hashtag #TalkBroadband, reflect the problems of a digital economy framing that elides complex notions of democratic citizenship to instead follow a neoliberal imperative that positions the public interest as consumer choice. Moreover, the digital economy framing exerts procedural and discursive pressures on the community of practice that constitutes Internet policymaking at the CRTC, by conferring special status on corporations as economic-turned-political actors who assume speech rights (Brown, 2015, p. 155). As shown in the way that Telus, for example, mobilized expert testimony from commissioned researchers, this special status implicates what counts as evidence in quasi-judicial testimony: in this case, politically welcome, industry-funded, quantitative data on markets, market competition, and legal idiosyncrasies (e.g., Braman, 2008, p. 435). This moment showcased the way that incumbent carriers like Telus could mobilize disproportionate material and symbolic resources (Freedman, 2010, p. 349), in ways that both shaped the scope of the CRTC’s deliberative process and the contours of its community of practice. This capacity of incumbent telecommunications companies to dominate the framing of policy issues challenges the pluralist view of public policy as a transparent and egalitarian process, a view that the CRTC has promoted in recent years. In the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, this stance of the CRTC was reinforced in the unprecedented speech made by the Chairman just before the lunch recess on the first day of the second week of the hearing. He framed the speech as a stock-taking of week one, but it was also deliberately positioned at the point just before the large incumbent providers like Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and Quebecor were slated to present. Chairman Blais focused on the need for a national digital strategy that would support the citizenship implications of Internet connectivity, as enshrined in the Telecommunications Act (1993). As Chairman Blais asserted regarding the national digital strategy: [I]t strikes us that this proceeding launched over 12 months ago may very well be the last best chance to get it right. A chance to create together a coherent national broadband strategy through an open and transparent process based on evidence from all Canadians, achieved to the extent possible through consensus, and implement it through shared responsibility. (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, para. 7604) Here, the Chairman sought to directly reinforce openness and transparency just before the incumbents would dominate the hearing discourse in the ways noted above. He also linked the openness of the CRTC’s public process to the ideal of consensus, suggesting a deliberative orientation of the proceeding despite the connection to the national digital strategy, an initiative of the former Industry Canada that was ultimately received poorly and suffered familiar problems in its lack of a diverse consultation, particularly among Indigenous groups (McMahon, 2011, p. 121). In calling out Industry Canada, moreover, the Chairman sought to efface the CRTC’s own political stakes in the issue of determining basic service. This effacement was reinforced by his proclamation that the essential status of broadband Internet was a “self-evident truth” to which all interveners adhere and which should not be subject to any further debate (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, pars. 7564–7566). The discursive operation here of claiming a self-evident truth effectively renders the issue of basic service to be apolitical, and further appears brazen in the middle of a hearing designed to solicit broad public input on the role of broadband Internet in Canadian society. As an unusual interruption of public hearing procedure, the Chairman’s entire speech might be interpreted in line with the impression of Blais as a showman, a term used in mainstream press coverage of the CRTC to suggest how his style of interventionist micromanagement was enveloped in dramatic gestures (e.g., Jackson, 2016). What showmanship also implies, however, is that the Chairman’s repeated promotion of an open and transparent deliberative process that invites the articulation of a public interest perspective may also be a dramatic gesture, a public relations exercise. Consider a moment in the hearing when members of anti-poverty advocacy group ACORN testified about their personal struggles with affordable broadband Internet access. They told compelling stories about how the stresses of poverty are compounded by disability, chronic health concerns, domestic abuse, immigration, mental illness, unemployment, and so on, as intimately tied to the issue of Internet access. Here, the boundary object of the Internet was configured much more broadly than the digital economy version, suggesting an opportunity for consensus building within the domain of the CRTC as a reasonably open and public community of practice. In line with the CRTC’s stated ideal of openness, this testimony garnered applause (which is unusual in a CRTC hearing), as well as a special commendation from the Chairman, who called the ACORN members courageous and noted that “normally our hearings are populated by lawyers, economists, accountants, public relations firms and it was certainly refreshing for you to be here to remind us and to keep us real” (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, para. 6130). Even while the ACORN members were being praised, according to the CRTC’s ideal of itself as a public institution that welcomes input from diverse groups of Canadians, the rhetorical strategy of contrasting interveners who are “real” against those who typically appear at CRTC hearings insinuated a kind of condescension. The condescending address toward ACORN’s members was made further apparent in their questioning, which implicitly positioned them as failed digital-economy subjects. As Vice-President Telecom Peter Menzies said to ACORN, the purpose of the hearing was to distinguish between basic services (needs) and less essential uses of the Internet (wants). He noted that he had been constructing a table of needs versus wants during the personal stories of ACORN members, singling out one person’s story as an example: [I]f they could [afford the Internet], they could do job search and enjoy other services like search engines, games, and Facebook. It was obvious this person is challenged financially and job search is a need, but some people might categorize games and Facebook as wants. (Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, 2016, pars. 5888–5889) By demonizing Facebook and games as wants, Menzies mobilized myths about poverty through Brown’s (2015) version of “homo oeconomicus,” a rational agent governed by choice. As a parallel to the way that corporations exert disproportionate speech rights in the public arena of the proceedings, here citizens bear the implications of how an economic position gets constituted as the most legible political position in reverse. Moreover, as Robin Mansell (1988, p. 246) has argued, trying to distinguish between basic and added-value services misses the point that all communication services add value. By framing added value as wants in the questioning of ACORN members, these added-value services further become tethered to income, thus exacerbating access inequalities. The needs-versus-wants framing that arose over the course of the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services oral hearing offers a prime example of the way certain discourses become legitimized through a community of practice where interlocutors are compelled to take on simplified positions through the constraints of the quasi-judicial environment, which in turn implicates attempts to fix certain meanings of the Internet. It is a particularly significant example because needs-versus-wants is a legacy framing that has marked regulatory institutions seeking to delineate objectively what falls under their jurisdictions and what doesn’t, even though “such distinctions are static and arbitrary” (Mansell, 1988, p. 245). The underlying purpose of these arbitrary distinctions is to position the determination of basic services as apolitical, when they in fact represent a chief mode of governmentality. If governmentality can be understood as “the cultural habits and predispositions out of which modes of governance and government arise, and by which they are sustained” (Braman, 2008, p. 433), the process by which governments problematize issues enacts a politics (Freedman, 2010). This is achieved by establishing who participates in decision making and what goals and solutions are considered legitimate (Braman, 2004, p. 154). The way that this happened during the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services, from the digital economy framing in the notice through to the performance of expertise in the interventions and the distillation of complex arguments into slogans in the oral hearing, shows how the CRTC’s public process can be seen as a succession of discursive legitimations that reinforce existing power differentials. Conclusion: Discursive implications So, how did the Review of Basic Telecommunications Services conclude, if its terms were set through the #TalkBroadband hashtag and its interveners were legitimized or delegitimized according to the discursive structures of participation? The final formal stage of the proceeding was the ruling, handed down on December 21, 2016, that broadband Internet is a basic service. Effectively, this changed the CRTC’s basic service obligation from telephony to broadband, and set higher speed (50/10 Mbps) and coverage (100% by 2031) targets for broadband access. But, as critics swiftly pointed out, the designation of broadband Internet as basic service doesn’t have a substantial material impact for most Canadians, who already consider Internet access to be essential (e.g., Geist, 2016). Moreover, while the new higher targets for broadband penetration are important, there is no plan for how the government will meet those targets. Finally, the ruling lacked a clear acknowledgement of the key issue that was raised by individual interveners and advocacy groups like ACORN throughout the proceeding, which was the affordability of broadband services (Lewis, 2016). The deficiencies of the final ruling, despite its apparently positive headline that the Internet is now considered basic, encapsulates how the current culture at the CRTC elides systemic problems with policy participation. As the examples analyzed in this article demonstrate, a series of discursive, judicial, technocratic, and gendered, classed, and raced structures modulate the legitimation of certain discourses over others. In my own experience as an intervener with the relative privilege of an institutional affiliation, being read as a legitimate participant requires a long period of initiation into the opaque particularities of the CRTC as a culture, a community of practice. This kind of learning of how to articulate a position within debate, which is central to what occurs between people within communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), happened through the hearing in particular, where the needs-versus-wants framing arose in response to testimony that fell outside of the digital economy framing of the Internet as boundary object. The case study shows how reading the CRTC as a community of practice goes beyond a view of interveners as stakeholders to see how their positions are conditioned by discursive framings handed down by the regulator itself alongside the post-hoc positioning that takes place in the policy domain. In this case, the discourses about the Internet as a basic service that ended up being legitimized throughout the proceeding were overly narrow and resulted in a relatively toothless ruling, the primary function of which was to maintain the legitimacy of the regulator itself as an apolitical institutional body. The broader consequences for how this proceeding played out speak to more widespread issues in policymaking generally. If policymaking can be seen as a community of practice, it is one in which different members of the community are structurally prevented from having equal footing. Despite attempts made by regulators who ostensibly work in the public interest to provide mechanisms for public participation, conventional designs for enacting participation within the bureaucratic processes of such a domain are more concerned with offering participation than with taking citizen proposals seriously (Stein, 2013). This means that what happens in a space like the basic service hearing is more akin to a shoring up of political power that only further disavows systemic inequalities; in the case of this proceeding, these were primarily inequalities around income and the needs of specific communities such as rural, remote, Northern, Indigenous, senior, and differently-abled Canadians. The chance to articulate a public interest perspective in the Canadian context became reduced to needs-versus-wants, reinforcing a neoliberal version of the public interest as consumer choice. This paper has offered a preliminary proposal for applying STS concepts to the domain of Internet policy in order to open space for critique of how the process of policymaking rests on the Internet as a boundary object over which competing discourses play out. Further research from such a perspective might go even deeper into the layers of policymaking as a community of practice beyond the visible level of public discourse, into those non-transparent, hidden moments that happen outside of the consultation space (Freedman, 2010), as well as the deliberately boring technical and legal policy jargon that prevents public scrutiny (Lentz, 2009). 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