Where it will take us is unknowable, but we know the Internet is changing our lives, and largely for the better. Canadians are connected to each other, and to people around the world, in unprecedented ways.
But with the boundless promise of the Internet come three challenges to nationhood and country: to our common culture, because the Internet has little regard for content restrictions. To global security, because online communications and commerce can be undermined by a prankster in his basement or a government across the ocean. And to our prosperity, because the Internet and its constituent components are technologies so disruptive and of such a scale that they can make and sink fortunes, not just of individual companies but of entire economies.
How should we react? If we do nothing, or try to use government to do too much, the real opportunities will pass us by, and the threats will not go away.
The best way forward, knowing that the online world is ever-changing, is to take an open but aggressive position, in which the government has a light touch but works in close collaboration with the private sector. In that path is a possible recipe for Canadian success on the Internet in the coming decades.
Culture: Canadians are creating great art and inventing new forms of communication inspired by and adapted for the Internet: artful videos like Arcade Fire's We Used To Wait; comedy, like Quebec's Têtes à claques; or The Globe and Mail's own Emmy-winning online reports, Talking To The Taliban, and Behind The Veil.
But it will only get harder for Canadian cultural producers to get by and get noticed. There is so much choice online already, and much of the content can be consumed freely. The Internet is penetrating already existing regulated media, such as TV and radio.
Rather than creating online CanCon rules, the best approach is to help Canadians who are creating the content. The federal government is taking steps in that direction with a new Canada Media Fund that merges funding for TV and new media production under a single banner, and with a proposed copyright regime that protects the intellectual property of artists.
Although it contributes to the Canada Media Fund, the private sector can play a greater role. The prime beneficiaries of Canadians' growing appetite for online content are the wireless operators and Internet service providers, who receive the revenues from monthly consumer bills, and they can more aggressively support new artists.
Economy: After a slow start, Canadian industry has made impressive strides in giving their subscribers faster broadband access. The pace of broadband construction needs to be sustained and be better organized. The federal government's digital economy strategy should include a plan for truly national broadband - not one paid for by government, or willed into existence by the CRTC, but one that includes government and the private sector as partners in planning the rollout of Internet services.
With the right infrastructure, more health-care and educational services can be delivered remotely, making small communities more livable and vibrant.
After the loss of Nortel, until recently our research and development champion, we must work harder to keep our great technological innovators. Research In Motion Ltd. is now the signature Canadian company on the international stage, and the loss of its head office or its purchase by foreign interests would be a great blow.
Celebrating RIM, though, is not enough. To succeed, Canadians have to build both the hardware and the software. We need to raise capital so that, not only the next RIM or Nortel, but the next Facebook or Twitter could start from Canada. The spark can often be just a small amount of seed money, and a culture that celebrates programming skills as much as it celebrates literacy and numeracy.
Finally, governments can encourage more digital spending, by expanding the tax deductions available to traditional advertising so that advertising online also qualifies.
Security: The security and privacy challenge is global, and Canadians are already leading. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada's interventions with Facebook caused the company to change its policies to enhance privacy, and all 500 million Facebook users around the world benefited. RIM's negotiations with Asian states on security standards are setting new precedents for company-to-government negotiations. The OpenNet Initiative, based in Toronto, has become a world leader in detecting and blowing the whistle on Internet filtering and surveillance by foreign governments.
We've developed pockets of expertise around online security and privacy. We just need to recognize, develop and tout it.
In March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major speech touting communication over the Internet as a fundamental human freedom. Prime Minister Stephen Harper should give a speech of similar ambition - articulating the values we are already practising. To that he can add a specific diplomatic twist: He can rebuff any attempt to move Internet governance away from ICANN, a not-for-profit body based in California, and into a UN-style body run by the International Telecommunications Union. The Internet was born in North America and it has thrived by being governed here.
All this is an ambitious agenda. And it must be a national one. If we get it right, the collaboration between the private sector, with its ability to deploy capital, and the government, with its ability to lead on the regulatory front, could put Canada at the forefront of the Internet - and that will keep our economy, culture and security in good stead.