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A New Internet Tax in Canada Would Keep Indigenous People Offline

Canada’s Heritage Minister is debating an ISP tax to fund Canadian content. Here’s why that’s a bad idea.

Recent reports suggest Heritage Canada Minister Mélanie Joly is debating adding a fee to the bills of Internet subscribers to help pay for Canadian content.

If adopted, this Internet service provider (ISP) tax would hurt the pocketbooks of all Internet users in Canada—hitting Indigenous communities the hardest.

Canadians have paid some of the highest prices in the industrialized world

With organizations like the First Nations Technology Council and First Mile Connectivity Consortium (FMCC) working hard to ensure Indigenous inclusion in the benefits of the open Internet, time and time again our communities are confronted with what feels like an insurmountable wall—the high costs of connectivity.

For decades, Canadians have paid some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for poor service. But nowhere is this more true than amongst Indigenous communities, especially in rural, remote, and northern regions.

These regions in particular face high prices, slow speeds, and oppressive data caps, contributing to a culture of self-throttling and censorship. This hampers innovation and causes people to leave those communities, as they're unable to participate meaningfully in remote work.

Because of this, Minister Joly would do well to consult with Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett before committing to this harmful ISP tax.

Read More: The Arctic's Internet Is So Expensive That People Mail the Web on USB Drives

Here's a quick example to get a sense of the digital divide: It would take Internet users on a $59.95 Northwestel plan in Iqaluit over three hours to download a single movie, which would put the subscriber near or at the cap for monthly use.

By comparison, as The Huffington Post notes, "Bell's least expensive plan in Ontario sells for $64.95 and offers download speeds that are about 30 times as fast, with a 75-gigabyte data cap." The same video would be downloaded in a matter of minutes.

Our federal telecom regulator the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) currently considers 5 Mbps the minimum "target" speed for households across the country—nearly 10 times faster than the Iqaluit plan.

So what does the CRTC's "minimum" cost in the north? Unfortunately, price deviates along the rural/urban divide. In the Yukon, rural customers pay $90 per month compared to $63 in urban areas.

We need to have inclusive policies that address the digital divide

Meanwhile, households in rural Northwest Territories pay up to $500 per month for 5 Mbps. And in rural Nunavut, residents pay $370 per month compared to their urban counterparts in Iqaluit who pay $180.

As FMCC notes, these prices "would surely be unaffordable for all but the most affluent members of society." This is where access is even available. Roughly 18,000 households in the territories and northern parts of the provinces—where the populations are primarily Indigenous—lack any access to Internet service at the Commission's minimum target speeds.

In communities where jobs are few, incomes are seasonal, and the cost of living is very high ($83.49 for a case of water), adoption of broadband technologies is difficult enough. The ISP tax would only serve to exacerbate this problem.

Suggestions for the tax come amidst Minister Joly's cross-country consultation, where she is seeking public input and new ideas for how to promote Canadian culture in an increasingly digital world—but many of these ideas come with a steep price tag.

Better ways to fund the promotion of Canadian culture include directing wireless spectrum auction proceeds to Canadian content, imposing GST/HST on foreign online services, or even pulling from general tax revenues.

But taxing Indigenous people to fund Canadian content that scarcely reflects the diversity of our communities and may serve to keep households offline seems abundantly wrong-headed—particularly in the midst of federal efforts to mend relationships with indigenous peoples.

If our aim is to promote Canadian culture then we need to have inclusive policies that address the digital divide, rather than arbitrary, regressive taxes that keep people offline.

Denise Williams is Coast Salish from Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island, and serves as Executive Director for The First Nations Technology Council which works to ensure First Nations communities in BC have access to the Internet and the capacity to utilize digital technologies to the fullest potential. Find her on Twitter @quwutsunn or @FN_TechCouncil.

Josh Tabish is Campaigns Director for OpenMedia, an international digital rights non-profit that works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free. Find him on Twitter at @jdtabish or @OpenMediaOrg.

Photo (above): In Iqaluit (pictured), it would take Internet users on a $59.95 Northwestel plan over three hours to download a single movie. Image: Sebastian/Wikimedia Commons

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