This entry is part 13 of 39 in the series 40 years online

Canada achieved coast-to-coast connectivity of its first network in 1985. NetNorth connected Canada’s major universities to one another and to BITNET in the United States. To define the moment and ensure it lodged in the public imagination, network administrators planned to complete the final critical connection at the University of Alberta on November 7: the hundredth anniversary of the day when the last spike was driven in Canada’s national railroad.

When you choose a historical metaphor, you make claims on conscience as well as imagination. The last spike is a powerful national symbol, as the creation of the railroad was crucial to both the reality and the idea of Canada. But the years that went into building that railroad were years of suffering for the thousands of Chinese immigrants brought to the country to do the hard, underpaid work of laying the rails. As noted in an online history produced by the Chinese Canadian National Council:

John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, had proclaimed that “without the Chinese, there would be no railroad”. Yet, when the CPR was finally finished in 1885, the Canadian government gave the other workers a total of 25 million acres of free land, but did not give the Chinese workers even a single “thank you” for their contributions and sacrifices to Canada. There certainly were no Chinese workers present in the famous Last Spike photo!

The creators of NetNorth were strangely prescient in their choice of metaphor. Twenty-five years after the celebration of a new national network, Canadians need to ask hard questions about the price Chinese workers are paying for Canadian (and global) connectivity. The railway brought Chinese to Canada in order to deliver on a dream of nationhood; the Internet can exact its toll on workers who never set foot outside China’s borders.

A spate of suicides brought a (brief) global spotlight to the working conditions inside Chinese tech factories. Much of the hardware that drives the world’s computers, phones and networks is now built in China, and the restrictions under which those tech workers often work and live might sound all-too-familiar to the Chinese who worked on North America’s railways. Both China and India are now major sources for software production too; Brandi Moore wrote in the Christian Science Monitor this week about the epidemic of sexual harassment that has been exported to India along with software jobs.

Just as troubling: the exclusion of the Chinese people from many of the benefits of this online world they have helped to create. The network envisioned by Canadian universities in 1985, and  the vision celebrated worldwide today, is one in which information and conversation flow freely across the globe. But that vision is far from reality in China and in many other countries that limit and censor Internet access to a remarkable degree.

The growth of network connectivity does not have to unfold along the same lines of exploitation and exploitation that characterized the growth of rail connectivity. How apt that one of the major loci for challenging Chinese Internet censorship has been at a Canadian university: the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Ron Deibert, Nart Villeneuve and other researchers at Citizen Lab have been instrumental in illuminating both how the Chinese government censors online activity and how Western companies have cooperated in a variety of ways. They are part of a larger network of anti-censorship activists, some of whom I interviewed for my dissertation, and many of whom are based in Canada.

When we chose our early metaphors for the Internet — the last spike, the information superhighway  — we committed ourselves not only to a vision, but to a legacy. That legacy can resign us to replaying our worst mistakes, or remind us of the historical debts we have to repay. The Internet owes as much to Chinese labour as the railway did a century before. Let’s not forget what we owe Chinese workers in return.

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