Collective Grist: Hacking Telecommunications Policy in Canada

Author: Tara Mahoney

Home university: School of Communication, Simon Fraser University

Education level: Phd Candidate (ABD), School of Communication


Throughout Western democracies there is a crisis of public confidence in the efficacy of formal, institutionally-driven forms of political participation. In neoliberal societies, a major problem for public engagement is the tendency for power to drift away from the formal political system and for market forces to be given much greater rein to allocate resources and define the societal landscapeFootnote 1. As mechanisms of neoliberalism such as deregulation, privatization, the contracting-out of public services, and the marketization of public goods have come to dominant policy-making, policy deliberation is often displace away from the formal political realm into spaces where unaccountable authorities are able to influence decisions behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny. This depoliticization of policy-making diminishes the realm of public deliberation, erodes public trust and alienates people from democratic processes as citizens increasingly feel that their voice has no impact in policy-making realms Footnote 2. In order to understand changing forms of public engagment with policy-making, we must first understand that political disengagement is not only a problem of personal attitudes and social barriers, but a problem of systemic political inequality that constricts the ability for everyday people to effectively participate in the decision-making that affects their daily lives. While participation in democracy is held up as an idea everyone claims fidelity to, the actual avenues to do so are extremely limited and often without real substance.

Emerging from this context are new forms of participatory politics that draw on communication technologies and social movements to produce citizen-driven policy alternatives. In recent years, “policy hacking”Footnote 3 has been taken up by Vancouver-based non-profit OpenMedia as a way to forge new roads into the notoriously opaque processes of telecommunications policy-making through a combination of wide-spread digital engagement and collaboration with policy experts. Several OpenMedia campaigns have culminated in crowd-sourced policy recommendation reports, submissions and interventions which are then used as leveraging tools in attempts to democratize decision-making processes at the federal level. This chapter explores the concept of policy hacking as it relates to the crowdsourcing work of OpenMedia. Drawing on RosanvallonFootnote 4, I argue that policy hacking operates as a valuable form of counter-democracy by leveraging public distrust to encourage more participatory and robust forms of public engagement. This case study demonstrates how counter-democracy and participatory politics (or participatory counter-democracy) provide a critical standard against which we might measure current public engagement practices - whereby democratic power can be leveraged through a skepticism of political institutions to adequately conduct public engagement efforts.

As a public engagement practitioner working in Vancouver, British Columbia, I have worked within an ecology of engagement and advocacy organizations, including OpenMedia. In several ways, my access as a researcher became possible because of other roles I occupy in my professional, social and personal life. Therefore, my perspective on OpenMedia’s work is very much shaped by where I am situated in relation to the organization and the people affiliated with it. Despite my obvious and inherent biases, I believe this study still offers valuable insights into the nature of public engagement with telecommunication issues in Canada. 

Neoliberalism, Participatory Politics and Counter-democracy


There are numerous ways to interpret what neoliberalism is and how it operates. On the surface, neoliberalism is “the free-market ideology based on individual liberty and limited government that connects human freedom to the actions of the rational, self-interested actor in a competitive marketplace”Footnote 5. Neoliberalism began to have wide influence during the 1970s in response to the rising inflation and economic recession. As a counter rationality to the welfare state, neoliberalism promoted principles of competition, efficiency, productivity, profitability, and individual autonomy. Indeed, the goal of early neoliberals was to dismantle the post-war welfare state in which the state played a key role in the protection and promotion of the social and economic well-being of its citizensFootnote 6. From this perspective, the market is imagined as a space of ‘unconstrained’ choices by ‘autonomous’ rationally calculating agents who are simply seeking the best way to satisfy their individual ends, while the actions of the state and state agencies are seen as an imposition of power on the space of individual choiceFootnote 7

In stark contrast to those who rationalize neoliberalism as a vehicle for individual freedom and choice, David Harvey sees neoliberalism as a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class who felt threatened both politically and economically by anti-corporate social movements and reformists initiatives that arose towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s. Using the United States as an example, Harvey points to the regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, consumer protections, and other statist initiatives that sought to empower citizens, labor unions and the public sector. Harvey argues that the “ruling class recognized that there were a number of fronts on which they had to struggle: the ideological front, the political front, and above all the struggle to curb the power of labor by whatever means possible. Out of this there emerged a political project which I would call neoliberalism” Footnote 8. In other words, in pushing back against state intervention and lobbying for the privatization of public services, the corporate sector used its power to push back against the redistributive state in order to assert its own leadership over the economy and society more generally.

 In Canada, neoliberalism was legitimated in an official capacity in 1985 with the publication of the MacDonald Royal Commission report, which aimed to develop a new model of political economy in the countryFootnote 9. The Commission’s recommendations included free trade with the United States, privatization of Crown corporations, reduced market intervention and a more targeted and incentives-based welfare state. As Bradford remarks, the report’s message of neoliberalization was clear: “Market liberalization, social adjustment, and limited government were the cornerstones of the MacDonald Commission’s public philosophy”Footnote 10. Along with the electoral victory of Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives in 1984, the MacDonald Commission marked the beginning of the official transformation from the welfare state to the neoliberal state in Canada. This transformation from the welfare state to the neoliberal state would serve both the material interests of the Canadian capitalist class and its political ambitions to refashion Canada along explicitly pro-market lines.

While neoliberalism operates to reconsolidate class interests through restructuring the state, it also provides an overlapping critique of democracy. The fear among neoliberals is an excess of democracy can produce too many collective demands that drive up inefficiency and high spending costs. The idea is that democracy would be far more efficient if social goods were pursued through principles of consumerism and the free market rather than state-led economic interventionFootnote 11. This perspective understands capitalism as democratic freedom through the protection of individual rights and property as opposed to democracy as collective rule. Thomas Frank describes this perspective as “market populism”, the idea that the free market is a more democratic means of articulating the popular will - much more so than organized politicsFootnote 12. Hence, because markets are considered to be efficient at allocating resources, they provided an attractive alternative to the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies.

In describing the negative impacts neoliberalism, Colin CrouchFootnote 13 argues that it has transformed democratic systems into “post-democracies” through four key developments: 1) Democratic institutions lose influence on the political decision-making process as they become more strongly dominated by a small number of (mostly economic) elites; 2) A “degeneration of political parties” turns political parties into “mere vote catching apparat[i]” that are unable to develop meaningful agendas and are mainly steered by information from opinion research; 3) Corporate media organizations become victims of marketization and focus on profit orientation instead of on political education which leads to the commodification of political processes and, citizens become passive as a result of widespread disenchantment with formal political participationFootnote 14. McBride and WhitesideFootnote 15 argue neoliberal societies are in the midst of a “democratic malaise” caused by increasing economic and social inequalities combined with a lack of opportunities for public input into policy decision-making. Focusing on the Canadian context, the authors argue that increasing cynicism and mistrust have come to replace political engagement and civic consciousness. They posit that this erosion of trust in the government caused by the lack of powerlessness people feel in the face of power elites can lead to the rise of behaviors that are destructive for social cohesion and exacerbate the exclusion of already marginalized and disenfranchised groups.

Participatory politics

As neoliberalism has eroded the efficacy of traditional and institutional forms of political engagement, citizens and publics have been forced to find new ways of expressing their opinions and shaping the conditions that impact their lives and communitiesFootnote 16. One way these new modes of political participation have been described is through the idea of participatory politics – an idea which emerges from participatory culture and describes the a wide array of cultural practices individuals and groups perform in the digital age to express themselves politicallyFootnote 17. The affordances of digital media have allowed new actors to move at a faster speed and wider scope than pre-digital approaches and leverage communicative capacities to open up new kinds of influence. These informal, non-governmental modes of democratic participation can be targeted at corporations, individuals and governments alike and often use cultural practices and communication technologies to not only disseminate political messages but to foster political cultures and organize communities. Adjacent concepts such as “networked social movements”Footnote 18, “civic media”Footnote 19, “connected action”Footnote 20, “netroots political associations”Footnote 21, “transmedia organizing”Footnote 22 and “DIY citizenship”Footnote 23 have all been used to describe these new participatory forms of mediated political participation. Communication researcher Lance Bennett argues that participatory politics have emerged alongside changing norms and values associated with citizenship. He posits that younger generations are moving away from institutionally driven ‘dutiful citizenship’ and toward ‘actualizing citizenship’, in which politics is understood as a broader set of concerns—from identity politics to community activism—and is often motivated by a sense of individual purpose and personal expression rather than obligation to governmentFootnote 24.

Importantly, participatory political practices often express a desire for a more democratic society and are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions. In this way, participatory politics foregrounds participatory democracy (a model of democracy that emphasizes the broad participation of people in governance and policy decisions), rather representative democracy (a model of democracy where citizens vote for government representatives to handle legislation and ruling the country on their behalf). However, while one of the central goals of participatory politics is to disrupt the idea of elite political institutions as the arbiters of public issues, it is important to point out that participatory and representative models of participation are not simply binaries, juxtaposed to each other on opposite ends of the spectrum. Rather many forms of participatory politics position participatory and representative models as mutually constitutive – to the extent that both work together to improve the quality of decision-making. Therefore, participatory politics is an approach to political participation that, when combined with practices of counter-democracy, has the potential to address the some of the ways neoliberalism undermines democracy and creates democratic inequality.


The term counter-democracy names the phenomenon in which distrust of power is expressed and organized within democracies. The concept was developed by Pierre Rosanvallon to describe how democratic participation has been changing (and in some respects improving), in ways that do not involve electoral competition between political parties or the formation of governments by the winners. He traces manifestations of counter-democracy as far back as ancient Greece but argues that it is the contemporary erosion of trust in politics that makes the need for counter-democracy pressing.

By counter-democracy I mean not the opposite of democracy but rather a form of democracy that reinforces the usual electoral democracy as a kind of buttress, a democracy of indirect powers disseminated throughout society in other words, a durable democracy of distrust, which complements the episodic democracy of the usual electoral-representative system. Thus counter-democracy is part of a larger system that also includes legal democratic institutions. It seeks to complement those institutions and extend their influence, to shore them upFootnote 25.

Rosanvallon sees distrust of power as an essential dimension of democracy, and his central question is how distrust should be organized so that its democratic potentials might be captured. Rosanvallon argues that the current crisis in Western democracies has resulted from the complexity of contemporary democracies that has rendered political decision making neither visible nor comprehensible to citizens. He coins the term “unpolitical democracy” to describe a condition in which the actions of formal democratic institutions cannot be related to common problems, narratives, and rules, such that the people might be said to rule themselvesFootnote 26. Under these circumstances, counter-democracy does not try to avoid the politics of distrust, but instead tries to organize distrust as a positive force for addressing cynicism and improving existing institutionalized forms of political participation. In Canada, counter-democracy has emerged most consistently in the indigenous sovereignty movement, which has combined the distrust of government decisions with direct action and strategic use of legal precedents to demand the fulfillment of treaty promises and stronger recognition of indigenous land rights. This form of counter-democracy has been remarkably effective in allowing disenfranchised people to force powerful settler democracies to reckon with their demands and thereby open a new space for postcolonial politicsFootnote 27.

Rosanvallon argues that we must find ways of channeling counter-democracy into effective venues and institutions, the forms of which already exist in the press, institutionalized opposition, nongovernmental organizations, government consultation processes, and the like. This where the concept of counter-democracy dovetails with participatory politics. The counter-democracy helps us identify how participatory politics can be productively channeled to endow governance-based participation with democratic credentials, not least because they guard against co-optation, merely apparent participation, and participation without powerFootnote 28. In other words, conceived through the framework of counter-democracy, participatory politics often leverages distrust to make political decision-making more visible if not more pluralistic, and differentiated by issue. Before discussing how counter-democracy has been leveraged by OpenMedia, it is important to review past practice of public participation in telecommunication policy.

Public Engagement and Telecommunications Policy in Canada

In Canada, communication policy-making is divided between the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (formally Industry Canada, renamed in 2015). The CRTC is an independent public organization that was established in 1968 to regulate companies that use radio spectrum to provide television, data, and telephony services to Canadians along the objectives set out in the Broadcasting Act (1991) and the Telecommunications Act (1993). Before being renamed, Industry Canada was a federal department responsible for the development of a national digital telecommunications infrastructure through the management of wireless spectrum, copyright and other issues related to Internet governanceFootnote 29. The CRTC is considered a key institution for opening the door to wider public participation in Canadian telecommunications policyFootnote 30. The CTRC has, in some ways, institutionalized public engagement through holding public hearings, round-table discussions, and informal online discussion forums on communication policy issuesFootnote 31. However, both the CRTC and Industry Canada have also been criticized for effectively sidelining the public from major policy decisions regarding technological development and deploymentFootnote 32.

With respect to the CRTC, several scholars have argued the structure of their regulatory processes create significant barriers to participationFootnote 33. For instance, participating in regulatory processes is expensive and requires considerable resources in terms of time, money, and knowledge. Hearings are generally conducted in Ottawa and, while in some cases the Commission will reimburse the expenses of interveners, for the most part people or organizations wanting to appear at proceedings must do so at their own expense. In addition, keeping up with the CRTC’s regulatory agenda, navigating the bureaucratic online submission system for interventions and undertaking the research necessary to understand the possible social, political and economic impacts of the issues it addresses is very difficult and time consuming. Without considerable time for research, or the benefit of paid staff, participating in proceedings is something very few people besides major media corporations can affordFootnote 34. As communication researcher Leslie Regan Shade remarks, the Canadian government’s “infrastructural support for capacity building [among advocacy groups] has been negligible”Footnote 35. Furthermore, the procedural aesthetics of the hearings themselves, with the Commissioners at the front of the room on an elevated platform questioning the presenter, creates an intimidating, court-like atmosphere – which is not a welcoming scene to the average CanadianFootnote 36.

In the context of Industry Canada, decision-making processes are largely closed. The majority of the power is bestowed upon the Industry Minister, which tends to prevent effective public input into regulatory decisions. As a result, in areas where Industry Canada is the dominant regulator, policy-making has been described by scholars as an opaque process with a “pronounced [public interest] advocacy deficit”Footnote 37. Communication scholar Darin Barney argues that since the emergence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the 1990s, telecommunications policy-making in Canada has been characterized by “a truncation of opportunities for participation...and a consistent tendency to respond more readily and decisively to the interests of major commercial and industrial actors than to those of public interest advocates and their constituencies”Footnote 38. Particularly policies concerning ICTs, have predominantly been concerned with establishing a climate conducive to technological innovation, capital investment, and economic growth rather than providing a meaningful site for effective democratic participation. Barney demonstrates how the membership of consultation bodies such as Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education (CANARIE), Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), and the National Broadband Task Force (NBTF) have reflected “a consistent overrepresentation of powerful, private actors with vested interests in this policy area, and only token representation of public interest groups and other constituencies”Footnote 39. This over-representation of industry interests and under-representation of public interests has been blamed for the increased concentration of media ownership in Canada, which has risen to among the world’s highestFootnote 40. Due to the deregulation of mobile wireless and internet sectors, the Canadian market is now dominated by the ‘big five’ — Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw and Quebecor who account for nearly three-quarters (72.1%) of all revenues across Canada’s telecom, media and internet industriesFootnote 41.

In an interview with telecommunications policy expert, they recounted a story that illustrates the close relationship between industry and the CRTC:

….one year I was invited to a telecom invitational summit, which existed in Konrad von Finckenstein's day (Chairman of the CRTC from 2007-2012). This thing was held at a private retreat outside Toronto with forty industry people, the CRTC regulators and a few select others. Totally off the record, 'Chatham House Rules' opportunity to talk. There was virtually no public interest representation in sight and certainly no public...the part I remember the most was coming into a game room and you had the CRTC commissioner and general counsel of one of the telecom companies shooting pool and I was like ‘holy, smokes, this is all the fears and concerns about how this stuff really works, it right there.’

Therefore, in addition to practical barriers to engagement, ideological barriers to participation have also been erected in recent decades as a neoliberal agenda has came to dominate telecom policy-making in Canada. As policy researcher Vanda Rideout argues, because there is a lack of a clearly-defined public interest, federal regulators have tended to equate the public interest with the economic interest, where consumers tend to stand in for citizensFootnote 42. This shift from citizen to consumer has also been exacerbated by the fact that new technologies are framed as personal media technologies, supporting a focus on individualism in policy practices and ideologies. As a result, collective concerns of social responsibility and public service have often been overtaken by the individualized economic framings of consumer protectionFootnote 43.

Communication scholars Robert Hackett and William K Carroll argue that private media ownership and concentration caused by the deregulating agenda of neoliberalism has a corrosive effect on not only communication policy but also on democracy itself. They outline key trends that describe in inextricable link between communication policy and democratic participation. For instance, the exacerbation of the ‘digital divide’ limits access to media services and information (which enable full political and economic participation) to those who can afford it; corporate enclosure put at risk the public commons of knowledge; and the erosion of privacy and free expression rights allow governments and the corporate sector to push for growing surveillance, censorship, and sometimes direct repression of contentFootnote 44. Indeed, demands for democratic communication policy-making are intimately linked to demands for a more democratic society. Therefore, media reform movements such as those led by OpenMedia, are responding not only to concentrated media power and the struggles over communication rights, they are also part of a wider challenge to social, political and economic inequalities. As the media landscape shifts online and as users increasingly access the Internet as a primary source for news and information, telecom policy is a site of struggle over both the future of the media and the future of democracyFootnote 45.

Case: OpenMedia

It is within the context of intensifying neoliberalization that OpenMedia emerged in 2008 as a digitally-driven advocacy organization focused on facilitating mass public engagement with media reform issues. OpenMedia was originally conceived under the name Canadians for Democratic Media (CDM) which was a loose coalition of academics, public interest organizations and labour groups committed to expanding the public interest voice in communications policy. CDM (and later OpenMedia) grew out of a long history of grassroots engagement in media and communication policy in Canada, beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century when Graham Spry and the Canadian Radio League were vocal in encouraging the growth of public ownership and mitigating the effects of market forces on the cost and character of services and productsFootnote 46.

In 2010, CDM was rebranded as OpenMedia to reflect its narrowing focus on Internet issues such as net neutrality, trade agreements, copyright and intellectual property, spectrum auctions and Internet surveillance. In terms of domestic policy, OpenMedia’s campaigns have targeted a variety of decision-making bodies within the federal government including Industry Canada, Heritage Canada, Public Safety Canada and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). One of OpenMedia’s early and most successful efforts at mass public engagement was the ‘Stop The Meter’ campaign which used social media, blogs, videos, media appearances and stakeholder coalitions to intervene in a CRTC decision to allow wholesale Internet providers the power to impose “usage-based billing” (pay per byte) on independent internet service providers and, as a consequence, many Canadian Internet users. The online petition garnered over 300,000 signatures and flooded the CRTC offices with over 100,000 comments, which was an unprecedented level of public engagement with telecommunicationsFootnote 47. Several scholars have suggested that this pressure led the CRTC to change its decision to reflect more consideration of the public interestFootnote 48 and the campaign was described by one representative of Library and Archives Canada, as the "most significant online movement in Canadian history"Footnote 49. Since the Stop the Meter campaign, several of OpenMedia’s petition campaigns have drawn over 100,000 signatures and they are now regularly consulted as a public interest group by regulators, policy-makers and the media, leading some to claim that they have set a new benchmark for online organizing in CanadaFootnote 50.


The collection of data that forms the basis for my analysis was collected from interviews with six past and present OpenMedia staff members, one expert in Canadian telecommunications policy, OpenMedia’s crowdsourced reports and news stories associated with their campaigns and crowdsourcing efforts. The sample of seven interviews were conducted over a two month period (August – September 2017) and aimed to understand OpenMedia’s processes of policy hacking and the ideology guiding its public engagement work. The analysis I report here is limited to two crowdsourcing campaigns (Time For an Upgrade and Our Privacy Plan) which were arguably the most high-profile of OpenMedia’s crowdsourcing efforts. I did not examine all the OpenMedia campaigns in which crowdsourcing was used, nor did I investigate the effects of participation on those who participated. The key aim of gathering this data is to offer evidence for how OpenMedia’s approach to public engagement offers a compelling way to think about how deliberation can be used in new ways to influence public policy in the era of neoliberalism. The hope is that this analysis serves as an instructive case for how unconventional forms of engagement are being used as a form of counter-democracy to intervene in policy discourse.

OpenMedia has produced five crowdsourced policy recommendations that each address a key communication policy issue, including:

Crowdsourcing is a media-based engagement process centered on the idea that knowledge is most accurate when it consists of inputs from a distributed population. A crowdsourcing process often manifests as an open call to participate in a task online by sharing an opinion, submitting information, knowledge, or talentFootnote 51. Over the past decade, improved communication technologies have enabled crowd-sourcing to act as a method for harnessing collective intelligence in public engagement processes ranging from urban planningFootnote 52, open source journalismFootnote 53 and, more recently, public policy developmentFootnote 54.

Openmedia’s process for producing crowd-sourced policy recommendation reports is multi-phased and can last anywhere from six to eighteen months. It can include some combination of targeted in-person consultations with specific stakeholder groups, broad online actions (where participants can indicate their support for a specific idea or principle or produce media in support of an idea), a ‘drag and drop’ interactive survey (where participants answer questions about their views on the policy) and ‘Internet town halls’ where participants can submit questions and comments regarding the policy and discuss the policy with OpenMedia staff and policy experts. 

Once significant data has been gathered, OpenMedia staff work with policy experts, scholars, and legal professionals to identify the themes and core concerns indicated in the consultation data. As one senior campaigner at OpenMedia remarked when describing the crowd-sourced policy recommendation reports in an interview with the author: “We don’t just come up with policy ourselves. First, we reach out to find out what the community thinks and wants at a high level. Then we work with policy experts to translate the high level desires into a formal set of recommendations...either in the form a crowd-sourced report or an official submission to the government.”

This comment reflects how OpenMedia’s crowdsourcing model operates as a process of two-way translation between the public and political institutions. The first translation is from the policy language to clear, jargon-free language so the public can understand what is being decided. The second translation is from everyday language back to policy language so the recommendation can have resonance with the institution and have weight in official processes. As one senior staff member remarked, “the trick is to work with experts in the field to articulate (in layman’s terms) what the big problems are, then to figure out how to translate what everyday people want into specific policy asks at institutional level”.

Example 1: Time for an Upgrade

The first example considers the Time for an Upgrade report. The engagement process began in January 2012 when OpenMedia launched the “Stop the Squeeze” campaign to stop the “Big Three” cell phone providers (Bell, Rogers, and Telus) from blocking the ability of independent competitors to acquire wireless spectrum. OpenMedia argued that because the big three providers controlled the vast majority of the wireless market, blocking independent providers from the wireless spectrum auction would result in longer term contracts, bad customer service and new fees. This came at a time when Canadians were already paying some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for wireless servicesFootnote 55.

The campaign encouraged public engagement by providing supporters with digital media tools - petitions, videos, posters, and viral share images— to pressure former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Industry Minister Christian Paradis to intervene. Over 65,000 Canadians signed the “Stop the Squeeze” petition and by October 2012, the CRTC announced a public proceeding on national rules for wireless services. After the CRTC’s announcement, OpenMedia repurposed the 13 page official ‘notice of consultation’ from CRTC into a digital tool that enabled Canadians to share their “horror stories” of high wireless prices and poor serviceFootnote 56. They received over 3,000 submissions — some of which consisted of multiple pages detailing mistreatment customers received from the ‘Big Three’Footnote 57 (see Figure 1 and 2).

Figure 1

Alexa d’Ottawa

"Every time I dealt with Rogers, they made me feel frustrated, angry and belittled. It was a horrible and exasperating esperience"
-Alexa d’Ottawa

Share your story at:

Figure 2


"My bill was over 12 pages longfull of phantom tethering charges. Every thirty minutes, Bell was charging me for something I was not doing, using or benefiting from."
-Michelle de Calgary

Share your story at:

The story submissions formed the basis of the presentation OpenMedia made to the CRTC at a public hearing in February 2013 and the lead OpenMedia campaigner live tweeted updates from the hearing. The ‘horror stories’ submissions were then combined with advice from experts to create the crowdsourced report that reflected how the participants wanted to see the wireless market reformedFootnote 58. In June 2013 the CRTC announced a new ‘Code of Conduct’ which, despite its shortcomings, had addressed complaints stressed in the campaign including capping data roaming rates, shortening contracts and making it easier to switch to a new providerFootnote 59.

Example 2: Canada’s Privacy Plan

The second example concerns the struggle to defeat two attempts made by the Canadian federal government to expand upon its cyber-surveillance capabilities: Bill C-30 and Bill C-51. Bill C-30 (commonly referred to as the Lawful Access Bill) was an attempt to expand upon the search and seizure, interception, surveillance, collection, and decryption capabilities of Canadian law enforcement. The primary goal was to remove the legal and technical barriers inhibiting seamless access to information held in private Internet and mobile accountsFootnote 60. OpenMedia played a leadership role the public outcry against C-30 which brought together numerous civil society organizations and thousands of individuals in the ‘Stop Online Spying’ campaign. In their discussion of the Stop Online Spying Campaign, Obar and Shade describe how the campaign created “a digitally mediated Fifth Estate” which reinvigorate the public as a watchdog of government accountability by drawing on the communicative power of online petitions, digital letters-to-the-editor, Internet townhalls, films, volunteer-made videos, and powerful hashtag campaigns. As the authors argue, these efforts operated outside the framework of traditional civic engagement and drew on three key strategies of (1) building an online community of networked individuals; (2) shaping pre-existing digital platforms to enable members of the public to contribute focused and pointed user-generated content; and (3) developing targeted content to be shared and distributed. Over the course of several months of mounting public pressure, the government eventually canceled Bill-30, with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson remarking, “we’ve listened to the concerns of Canadians who have been very clear on this”Footnote 61. However, as Obar and Shade point out, this was not the result of government consultations as there were no public hearings, no formal calls for public comment, and no reports of Members of Parliament. While traditional methods of public consultation were not pursued, a clear message of public dissent was advanced by leveraging practices of social and digital mediaFootnote 62.

Following the successful defeat of Bill-30, the Conservative government brought forward Bill C-51 in 2015 which extended the measures put forward in Bill-30 and gave government institutions unprecedented powers to monitor and profile Canadians through the internet. Again, there was widespread opposition to Bill C-51 with a petition of more 300,000 signatures and over 50 protest events in cities across CanadaFootnote 63. As a result of these and other actions, Bill C-51 became a central issue of the 2015 federal election with the Liberals campaigning on a promise to reform Bill C-51 if electedFootnote 64.

Leading up to the election, OpenMedia produced Canada’s Privacy Plan — a comprehensive policy plan that was crowdsourced from the comments and survey responses of over 125,000 (see Figure 3) Canadians who repsonded to questions like: What is most important to you when it comes to privacy? What will it take to tackle our privacy deficit? What safeguards do you think are necessary to protect our human rights in a digital age?Footnote 65

Figure 3

Figure 3
Long description

How would you rank the priorities below if you were developing privacy safeguards relating to government entities? Draft the items below to rank them in order of priority from top to bottom.

Tough penalties for when government breaks privacy laws
Privacy rules should be shaped democratically
More transparency around government collection of personal data
Independent oversight and review of spy agencies
Require a warrant for government to spy on personal information
End blanket surveillance of law-abiding people
(Contact Information)
First name (required)
Last name
Your email address (required)
Answer options:

  1. That was fun I would like to provide more input!
  2. I am done!

One senior staff member describes the impetus for the report: “When you’re faced with a really hostile government that’s pushing very extreme surveillance legislation and who is not interested in hearing from citizens, it really puts on onus on us as an organization to lead on crowd-sourcing what it is that citizens want. We need to make sure that the process actually distills what exactly the people want the government to do rather than just say ‘no’....the trick is to work with experts to translate what people want into policy language to argue for institutional change.”

Shortly after the Liberals won the election, the government began public consultations on Bill C-51 reforms. However, the government-led online consultation process was marred with concerns over bias and one-sided languageFootnote 66 and the in-person consultations were described by some as "utterly demoralizing"Footnote 67. In response, OpenMedia and Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) launched a crowdsourcing tool that translated the survey into accessible language and fed the answers of participants into the official government consultation online survey. Over 15,000 of the 50,000 submissions to the government survey were made using the tool provided by OpenMediaFootnote 68.

After the consultation process was over, the government initially refused to make the consultation submissions public, instead promising a ‘summary’ of results. An open letter was published in the online publication National Observer from over 30 civil society organizations and experts urging the government to release the results of the consultation. Eventually, the government released the consultation results. Not trusting the government to analyze the public feedback in good faith, OpenMedia built another online tool ( that enabled the public to assess the consultation submissions. Funded by grassroots donations, the tool asked each participant to read submissions and answer a few simple questions about them. This crowdsourced analysis showed that vast majority of submissions to the government’s consultation (that mention Bill C-51) called for the repeal of Bill C-51, and expressed strong support for the protection of privacy, and deep concern about the sharing of personal information with Canadian agencies or foreign governments. OpenMedia then used this as evidence to increase pressure on the government to adopt the policy positions put forward in their crowdsourced Privacy Plan.

Policy Hacking

The concept of “policy hacking” describes a mode of contemporary policy activism based on the “citizen-based DIY creation of concrete policy alternatives”Footnote 69. It connects the dynamics of “policy windows” and “consensus mobilization” Footnote 70 with a do-it-yourself ethos that improves, upgrades and repackages policy. Just as computer hackers change and upgrade code – policy hackers revise, upgrade and change policies to better serve the public interest. In his discussion of policy hacking, Hintz points out that, typically, policy interventions carried out by traditional nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are too limited in their responses to policy windows and policy challenges because of: (a) the limited range of actors involved in policy advocacy; and (b) the limited range of tactics and approaches used. As a result, “new informal connections, loose collaborations, and temporary alliances among engaged individuals….have had little opportunity to be involved in the process, even though they are increasingly recognized as complementing ‘organized civil society’”Footnote 71.

By putting the public at the centre of proposing and developing policy changes, policy hacking challenges us to think differently about how to establish new norms of public engagement that allow for more robust and participatory engagement with policy-making. This shift could potnetially have profound implications. As Hintz describes, policy hacking is a “prefigurative action that interacts with the policy environment neither inside nor outside institutional or governmental processes, but beyond those processes by creating alternatives to hegemonic structures and procedures and by adopting a tactical repertoire of circumvention”Footnote 72. What is unique about OpenMedia’s approach, and what differentiates its activities from Hintz’s original conception of policy hacking, is that it combines policy hacking with participatory politics to facilitate wide-spread engagement by significantly lowering the barriers to participation. Recall that the concept of participatory politics has been used by contemporary media researchers to designate digitally-mediated forms of political engagement that are not guided by formal institutions and encompass a wide range of mediated activities including video production, web design, mobile apps, digital activism and peer-productionFootnote 73. Rather than only engaging a small group of well-informed citizens and experts, OpenMedia’s approach to policy hacking uses participatory politics to open the process to as many people as possible through mulitple entry points that help citizens strategically speak out against proposed legislation; circulate and analyze information related to policy issues; and produce original content that contributes to campaigns. Participation can range from writing a comment on social media, filling out a survey, creating an image or a video, telling their story, or proposing a fully fleshed out policy idea. OpenMedia then uses these diverse forms of engagement to build people power behind their position and develop crowdsourced policy plans in collaboration with experts.

Policy Hacking as Counter-Democracy

In recent decades, the theory and practice of deliberative democracy has gained traction as a way to enable publics to authorize and contribute to policy decisions. While representative democracies have traditionally practiced elitist deliberative democracy through decision-making bodies such as legislatures and courts, forms of populist deliberative democracy (such as citizen assemblies, deliberative polling and participatory budgeting) have increasingly been employed to facilitate citizen engagement with policy initiatives. In Canada and across Western democracies, populist deliberative approaches have been used in a diversity of policy areas from education, policing, urban planning, to resource management, waste management, language protection and climate change adaptationFootnote 74. Indeed, the hope of these procedures is that they work to educate and empower individuals by providing opportunities for direct contribution to policy-making. However, as Genvieve Fuji Johnson points out in her detailed study of deliberative processes in Canada, deliberative democracy initiatives often serve to “uphold dominant interest, pre-existing power structures, hierarchical subcultures and elites approaches to policy”Footnote 75. As she describes, deliberative procedures “may have been empowering for participants in moments when they were discussing issues, exchanging reasons, and coming to conclusions, and they may have appeared empowering in providing institutionalized opportunities to contribute to collective decision making, but they turned out to be non-empowering in terms of outcomes that did not significantly challenge the status quo approach to formulating and implementing policy”Footnote 76. Indeed, other skeptics argue that governments can use deliberative forms of participation as “pseudoparticipation”, a form of “window dressing” that disguises forgone policy conclusionsFootnote 77. These forms of faux-participation do not meet the real demand for engagement among concerned publics, but rather operate to create the illusion of meaningful participation and therefore risk becoming processes that undermine rather than strengthen democracy.

As was discussed earlier, unaccountable interests have a disproportionate influence over telecommunications policy decisions in Canada. As such, the values and practices of deliberative democracy, on their own, are not adequate for addressing the democratic inequality inherent in neoliberalism. As Chantal Mouffe points out, “in their attempt to reconcile the liberal tradition with the democratic one, deliberative democrats tend to erase the tension that exist between liberalism and democracy and they are therefore unable to come to terms with the conflictual nature of democratic politics”Footnote 78. To strengthen the efficacy of and build trust in democratic institutions, processes of deliberative democracy must be accompanied by a “countervailing power”Footnote 79 that demands more consequential and transparent public engagement. Indeed, political deliberation without political struggle is effectively limited to established institutions and processes that embody and secure prevailing distributions of power and resourcesFootnote 80. As such, deliberative democracy and collective action should not be positioned as conflicting forms of public engagement, with cooperative discussion on the one hand, and adversarial protest and negotiation on the otherFootnote 81. Rather, they should be understood as two parts of the same process, two sides of the same coin. The most important innovations in deliberative democracy such as citizen assemblies, participatory budgeting, even democracy itself, stem from populist demands for greater inclusiveness in public decision-makingFootnote 82. Therefore, deliberative democracy initiatives ought to simultaneously engage the public in policy deliberation and facilitate collective action that holds public authorities accountable for the outputs of participation.

The OpenMedia case demonstrates how critical actors are key to consequential forms of political participation because they build power behind participatory politics. While OpenMedia does appear to have had some influence on the outcome of a number of internet related policy issues, my argument is not about claiming causality between OpenMedia’s campaigns and policy decisions. It is extremely difficult to determine the impact of one group’s actions on public policy processes and there are other contextual factors that have an influence on these outcomes. Nor am I claiming that OM’s approach to participatory politics is without problems. Indeed, their approach risks its own kind of elitism in that it can appeal to a certain type of citizen with a specific set of interests, knowledge and access to technology. There are also valid questions as to whom OpenMedia represents and with what legitimacy - while OpenMedia does have over 600,000 people in its community, it cannot claim to represent all Canadians.

My argument, rather, is that by combining counter-democracy and participatory politics (or participatory counter-democracy) the OpenMedia case provides a critical standard against which we might measure current public engagement practices. Recall that Rosanvallon’s idea of counter-democracy refers to notion that the vitality of democracy rests on distrust of power and citizens expressing dissent, protest, and exerting pressure from without on the democratic state. For Rosanvallon, the distrust of power is an essential dimension of democracy, and we ought to be focusing on how distrust can be organized so that its democratic potentials might be captured. If not, we risk distrust becoming a populist politics of accusation and denunciation without vision. In other words, distrust of power can turn contemporary problems of political inequality into opportunities.

Drawing on Rosanvallon, OpenMedia’s efforts in policy hacking reflect a “counter-power” that can “oversee democracy,”—including the tendencies of representative government to become corrupt, distant, elitist. In other words, counter-democracy provides opportunities through which democracies can “correct their course and enhance their stability”Footnote 83. By leveraging public distrust and skepticism of political institutions, OpenMedia encourages more participatory and robust forms of public engagement. OpenMedia’s facilitation of participatory counter-democracy lays bare the reality that, within the context of neoliberalism, participation is a site of democratic struggle between minimalist and maximalist forms of public engagement. As Carpentier argues, the hegemonic position of representative democracy means that alternatives to representative democracy are often deemed as either impractical or undesirable, even while digital communication makes these approaches increasingly viableFootnote 84. Contrary to approaches that centre bureaucrats and elected representatives as the primary source of democratic legitimacy in the policy-making process, participatory counter-democracy positions the public as the most legitimate and qualified actor to determine public policy.

By positioning the public as the protagonist in the empowering roles of storyteller (Time for an Upgrade campaign) and watchdog (Stop Spying campaign), we can observe how OpenMedia practice of participatory counter-democracy uses social media and information communication technologies as a form of what Andrew Feenberg calls “democratic rationalization”. This concept explains how emergent political practices use technology in ways that were not envisaged within the rationality of political and technological elites. Feenberg suggests that democratic rationalization operates as a subversion of sorts where user interventions challenge undemocratic power structures rooted in modern technologyFootnote 85. This situation arose in the OpenMedia case study, as the policy-making processes of the CRTC and Industry Canada had increasingly lost their political character and become a form of system management. In response, the OpenMedia crowd-sourcing policy making functioned as a new sub-political force emerging from the cracks of the dominant order, contesting the consequences of the status quo and re-politicizing the policy making apparatuses. Feenberg describe this kind of democratization:

As distinct from “strong” democracy, I will call a movement for democratization “deep” where it includes a strategy combining the democratic rationalization of technical codes with electoral controls on technical institutions. Such a deep democratization would alter the structure and knowledge base of management and expertise. The exercise of authority would come to favor agency in technically mediated social domains. Deep democratization promises an alternative to technocracy. Instead of popular agency appearing as an anomaly and an interference, it would be normalized and incorporated into the standard procedures of technical design. Footnote 86

By putting the public at the center of proposing and developing policy changes, the OpenMedia case challenges us to think about how participatory politics can be leveraged strategically to establish new norms of public engagement that allow for more robust forms of engagement rooted in principles of participatory democracy. Indeed, participatory democracy is a key value that governs OpenMedia strategy, values and aspirations:

There’s a belief underlying OM’s work that democracy isn’t voting every 4-5 years. Democracy is a participatory practice that’s lived every day and that the value that underlies is not non-partisan but post-partisanFootnote i.… [P]artisan politics is a crude instrument of the past that can never capture the will of the electorate or the will of the people in the way that new means of technological engagement can. The idea that we can all be connected to the formal decision making, we can all be connected to the political process, and the days of raising your concerns with your representative at a local town hall are archaic. Why can’t governments show more innovation in consulting citizens? Why can’t they make democracy more direct? Why can’t the space/distance between institutional decision-making and people be collapsed?

The value in OpenMedia’s approach to participatory politics is how it used communication technology to open up and demonstrate a possible future mechanism for policy-making. Their use of counter-democracy through policy hacking points to the radical political potential that is present in the participatory politics technologically advanced societies. This was reflected in how the organization perceives it role in facilitating democratic participation:

We have got a role to play in improving how we do democracy in Canada and around the world. This kind of narrowly define representative democracy only really gets you so far, it still leaves an awful lot of power in the hands of unaccountable elites and in order to make sure citizens voice get heard more than once every four years, it's really important that you have crowd-sourcing playing a big role in shaping policy…. So that really puts the onus as an organization to…make sure that that crowdsourcing not only channels the outrage but also distills it into what people want….There is a gap in representative democracy where MPs are sent to parliament and people trust that they will reflect our values but there’s no real way to hold them accountable for that until 4 years later at the next election.

As technology increasingly becomes the object of mistrust and contestation, there is a need for legitimation of technology through participatory and democratic processes, like those exhibited in the OpenMedia case study. 

While this case study illustrates unique and innovative ways to address power relations between privileged and non-privileged actors in policymaking processes, it also brings up several tensions and contradictions. One tension that arises is in how OM’s campaigns encourage individualized and consumer-orientated forms of political engagement. This approach risks undermining the collective democratic identities of citizens and reducing political participation down to economic and individualized self-interest, rather than public responsibility and collective interest. However, the OpenMedia case study also illustrated how individualism and consumer values can be leveraged as a way to recruit new people and guide them into more substantial political analysis and engagement. Senior leadership at OM explain how they resist one-dimensional classifications as a consumer rights group and foreground their collectivist and political orientation: 

It’s not just about lowering your cell phone bills. Even journalists who have covered us for years still refer to us as a consumer group. We do our best to try and bridge people across, give people avenues. You may have joined us because you want your cell phone bill to be lower but - have you considered how government spying is a problem? Different people care about different issues (bills, the Charter, copyright). The citizen comments that make us happiest are when people write in and express that they understand the deeper democratic things we are trying to do. That gives us inspiration to keep plugging away.

Another member of the leadership at OM remarked:

OM has been pushed by the media and others to define ourselves as a consumer rights organization which I have always refused to do. Because consumer rights are passive and about your right to consume a product rather than your right as citizen to shape decisions that affect your daily life.

The tenuous position OpenMedia occupies between political engagement and consumerism reveals an essential contradiction of participatory politics within neoliberalism. On one hand, there are obvious strategic advantages to using the consumer identity as a productive force for politics and the constitution of critical subjectivities and solidarities. The Time for Upgrade campaign illustrates how politicization can interact with consumer culture in ways that reinvent grassroots identifications as well as tactical strategies for collectively demanding better telecommunications policy. Indeed, in a neoliberal society such as Canada, it is increasingly difficult to position politics and consumerism in opposition. As has been discussed, often our rights and freedoms are guaranteed not only by the state alone but by the market also. On the other hand, leveraging consumer outrage for political mobilization hazards reinforcing the consumer-citizen as an essential site of empowerment. Leveraging consumer culture runs the risk of replacing democratic subjectivity with capitalist forms of citizenship where participation in public sphere is shaped by the ability to consume, a tactic which disproportionally excludes marginalized constituencies – women, non-whites, and the poorFootnote 87.

While OpenMedia has the intention of making the connection between being a consumer and being a political agent, this is by no means guaranteed. The tendency for the media to identify OpenMedia as a consumer group illustrates the limitations in using consumer-based strategies and tactics. Indeed, OpenMedia’s approach of using consumerism as an entry point into political participation risks being misrecognized as solely a concern for consumer rights and therefore reinforcing unhelpful norms of individualism and consumption.

The OpenMedia case study brings up another paradox of participatory politics, namely - the fact that networked communication and participation are key features of both cognitive capitalism and new avenues for democratization that challenge neoliberal orthodoxy collectively and politically. As a digital-driven organization, OpenMedia’s heavy reliance on digital engagement has left them vulnerable to the monopoly powers of companies such as Facebook and Google, not to mention the structuring power of large telecommunications corporations to shape public awareness and behavior. The growth and consolidation of large digital media corporations (especially in Canada) has meant that advertising has become the dominant revenue generating model across the web, forcing organizations like OM to pay for reaching supporters in ways they had not had to in the early days of the organization. A senior OpenMedia campaigner describes this dynamic:

Since Facebook and Google have grown, the distribution mechanisms for advocacy have really cinched in. There’s constant challenges to email as well, which is the primary tool of most digital campaign organizations so if there’s one policy change in Gmail for how mass emails are treated, that affects everybody. The landscape and architecture of communication channels for advocacy organizations has shrunk in quite a bit, towards a pay to play model, as opposed to the openness we saw in the early 2010s.

While contending with the political economy of Internet monopolies was often outside of the scope and capability of OpenMedia, the issue of data and power concentration among corporations remains crucially important and posed a major challenge to OM’s broader goals of media reform and Internet freedom. The network infrastructure on which OM’s advocacy depends could very easily be compromised or co-opted by corporations who can adopt the citizen-consumer frame. Indeed, crowd-sourcing is not immune to manipulation and corrupting tendencies. For instance, in the most recent net neutrality debates in United States, it is speculated that large telecommunications companies are driving mass amounts of astroturf participation with pro-corporate goals that create illusion democratic participation. A Pew Research Centre study into the public comments submitted to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (the American version of the CRTC) found that of the 21.7 million comments, 57% used temporary or duplicate email addresses, and seven popular comments accounted for 38% of all submissionsFootnote 88. Media reports detail how ‘fake’ comments were submitted through automated programs such as over 100,000 identical comments posted to the FCC’s website urging the agency to roll back the Obama Administration's rules protecting net neutralityFootnote 89.

The tensions that arise in the work of OpenMedia underscore the point that, on its own, digital engagement or innovations in political participation are not inherently good, democratic or progressive - they are ambivalent and contingent, their power is derived from the ends served in any given contextFootnote 90. Indeed, to live in a neoliberal society is to confront the “participation paradox” where new forms of participation are immensely promising and, simultaneously, “knit to the accumulation of capital through forms of social production in which immaterial labour, communication, and affect are central”Footnote 91. However, what remains to be seen is the extent to which emerging publics are able to use participatory politics in critical ways that counter de-politicization and mitigate the structural inequalities associated with neoliberalism. What is at stake is the degree to which widespread practices of participatory culture can be leveraged to support and facilitate collective movements for more substantial and flexible forms of democratic participation. Through its process of policy hacking, OpenMedia was able to use the broad categories of ‘fairness’, ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ to connect the common experience of paying a cell phone bill and being surveilled online to political campaigns focused on telecommunication policy. OpenMedia used memes and other forms of visual and digital communication as a new vocabulary of public policy. The potential implication of this practice, should it be taken up more broadly, could engage new publics in public policy debates through practices and processes that invite more accessible, creative and responsive forms of public engagement.


At a time when information communication technology increasingly mediates social, political, cultural and economic life, telecommunications policy is arguably one of the most important public policy areas in Canadian society. As such, addressing the democratic deficit within telecommunciations policy is essential for addressing the wider erosion of democracy across political institions. It also reminds us that the Internet as we know it is partly a result of policies pursued by various stakeholders with specific interests – and could thus be politically altered to reflect a different set of interestsFootnote 92. In a context of cyncism, distrust and retreat from political institutions, OpenMedia’s practice of participatory couner-democracy demonstrates how public engagement can be put at the centre of the struggle to democratize telecommunications policy-making. A senior member of the leadership team remarks on how OpenMedia’ analysis of power factors into their approach:

In terms of power, industry players have way more resources so they have the time to spend to shape the narrative of decision-makers. So that’s why it’s important to consider power dynamics in all of this and to weight processes accordingly. It’s more difficult to coalesce and mobilize individuals are de-centralized whereas large industry players already have centralized resources that they more easily deploy. That political economy is important. For telecom companies, they have this cycle of capital where they lobby to get a ruling which means they have monopolistic powers over a market, they use that to price-gouge people because they have that market control then they use a portion of that money to reinvest it in capturing the rules and winning regulations that favour their interests. So the cycle continues. People who believe in public participation, including governments, need to create an opposing cycle of participation that can match that. That requires investment and different ways of constructing a process….People shouldn’t just have a seat to the table, people should be in the driver’s seat of these decisions….the public’s input should be weighted much more heavily than industry lobbyists.

We are currently in the midst of paradigm shift in telecommunications policy. In the United States, the marked turn toward the more authoritarian tendencies of the Trump administration and recent regulatory changes to repeal net-neutrality threaten the core of democracy – the ability for citizens to have the information they need to hold their leaders accountable and impact the decisions that shape their lives. In Canada, promises by the federal government to “review and modernize” the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act means that the laws governing television, telecom and the Internet will soon be overhauledFootnote 93. This case study offers a number of important insights for those interested in the praxis of public engagement with public policy: 1) The need for public engagement praxis to confront the reality that existing political institutions are rooted in systems that often perpetuates political inequality by favoring industry voices over those of the public. Actors that lead processes of deliberative democracy ought to be willing to leverage counter-democracy in order to confront practices of inadequate public engagement and build power behind policy proposals that are supported by wide-spread digital participation; 2) Further attention needs to be paid to how digital technology can be used to facilitate, aggregate and translate informal and unconventional forms of deliberation by large and dispersed populations into coherent and workable policy alternatives; 3) This case study supports the argument that too little attention has been paid to examining the initiatives, ideas and techniques involved in leveraging the conditions of neoliberalism in order to go beyond itFootnote 94. In a political environment increasingly marked by the individualization of choice, a dissipation of established solidarities and an entrepreneurial mode of engagementFootnote 95, we need to better understand how personalized, network-based communication can be leveraged to influence public policy and, ultimately, to rethink how power is leveraged within neoliberal societies.

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