Borders Keep Out Innovation Too

Since returning from living in Silicon Valley, I’ve been in the grips of something my father calls “expatriate blues” – it involves looking around at my new environment and critiquing what’s different, and not always in a positive manner. This is a natural response whenever you move countries – I’ve lived in five countries over the past dozen years, so this par for the course. So, without further ado, allow me to expound on my latest “expatriate blues”-derived pet peeve: the border.

It’s not that I’m against the border per se. Borders exist for a couple good reasons – ensuring the government’s ability to enforce laws, collect taxes, and keep out undesirables (although that seems to be increasingly interpreted as “primarily poor, unskilled immigrants”). That stuff is all good. Unfortunately, as technology becomes increasingly content-rich and network-dependent, we’re seeing a new generation of technologies that get tripped up at the border in the intricacies of international copyright law and licensing schemes.

I’m not the first one to lament the technologies not available in Canada from our neighbor to the southHulu, Mint, Netflix, an that doesn’t suck, hellooo? But this is nothing new for Canada – remember the iTunes store? Introduced in the US in April of 2003 and shortly thereafter in Canada in…December 2004. The streak continued with the iPhone (introduced in June 2007 in the US, July 2008 in Canada), and continues to this day with the continued unavailability of’s Kindle device. And, in case you didn’t realize, that last one also includes the Kindle iPhone App – it’s not available in Canada, which seems silly for a software application that can download books over wireless Internet.

In a world of technology that’s supposed enhance our capabilities and remove barriers to markets, it appears the last true barrier to market is still firmly in place. But why should we care? After all, all the innovations I’ve listed could be easily dismissed as trivial entertainment products. It’s not like we’re not getting access to lifesaving medical devices, right?

Wrong – that’s an incomplete and flawed argument. While it’s true these devices may appear to be frivolous, the future often arrives in unexpected forms. The real reason to be concerned about the unavailability of these services in Canada is that they impede Canada’s ability to innovate and to exploit new markets. In some cases, it is possible for engineers and others to work around the border – a US credit card here, a Washington state drop box there, a US IP address proxy service somewhere else – but these are all hacks. These hacks introduce friction, friction which slow down the system and places the country at a disadvantage to gain momentum.

If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, some of this argument might sound familiar. In his latest book, Outliers, Gladwell notes that many of the hockey players in the NHL are born between January 2nd, and the end of April. The reason? The cutoff dates for age brackets in the minor leagues is January 1st – meaning that anyone born on January 2nd ends up in a lower age bracket. These players’ age advantage translates into superior motor control and size – characteristics that predispose the players to appear more capable than others in their bracket. This means these players get picked for special coaching, which kicks off a virtuous feedback cycle. The players get better, and because they appear to be better players, they get more coaching, which makes them even better players. And so on.

The same is true for innovation. Without access to these products, Canada is placed at a disadvantage, just like a player born on January 1st. Smallest of the litter, slowest of the pack. Not only do our entrepreneurs not get the opportunity to build on top of these platforms, but our own companies are not forced to compete in the global market. This not only means that Canadians don’t get access to better products, but also that Canadians don’t learn how to build better products themselves for export to the world.

Canada needs to move quickly to remove this barrier, or we may end up finding ourselves out of much more than the latest shiny toy.

Your Government: Powered by Google

Department Of Homeland Security LogoIn a recent short story, Cory Doctorow imagined a world in which Google powers the US border and immigration services. That world conjured up a new term: Scroogled. As nightmarish as the prospect of any fictitious world that can be conjured up by a bastardized compound of the words “Google”, “scrutinized”, “screwed”, it’s not quite as bad as the reality I came across over the last two weeks.

I recently realized I needed to fill out some paperwork to maintain my US permanent resident card. I found the form online, filled it out, and then realized I might actually need to still be in the US in order to submit the form. Something about the US government wanting my bodily fluids I think, and not in a good way.

I was pretty sure the US government already had every scrap of biometrics on me that it could possibly ever need, but rather than blindly submitting the form, I went to the US consulate in Vancouver to see if I could get a definitive answer. Except, apparently, customer service isn’t what a consulate provides, even if you are a legal US resident. The guards at the consulate gave me a 1-900 number to call for information.

Wait…the US government uses 1-900 numbers? Aren’t those those reserved for televangelists and phone sex lines?

Apparently not. For the low-low price of $1.89 a minute, the US government will answer your questions about the absurdly complicated world they created. Hooray! It’s like being stuck in the movie Brazil, but without a British accent to make those whole experience appear polite. But the results were just as comical:

Me: Hi, I’m trying to find out if I need to be in the US to file my I-131? Does that apply if I’ve already got a permanent resident card?

Customs: An I-131? What is that?

Me: It’s a re-entry permit.

Customs: Oh, sorry – we only handle visas on this phone number…

Me: I guess it’s a type of visa…it lets me get back into the country.

Customs: …yeah, we don’t handle that type of visa at this number. Have you tried the US consulate?

Me: Yes. They gave me your number.

Customs: Hmm…well, you know what you might try? Why don’t you Google it?

Google it? Two bucks a minute to be told the answer is on the Internet? What. The. Hell.

At least the guy gave me two other phone numbers to call – one at Vancouver Airport, and the other at the Niagara Falls border crossing. No one picked up the phone at Vancouver Airport, but at the Niagara Falls crossing, I had an eerily familiar experience:

Me: <same as above>

Customs: Hmm, I don’t really know about the I-131.

Me: Well, I’ve tried the US consulate, they gave me a number, and the guy there gave me your number. Any other ideas where I can find out about this I-131?

Customs: Well, why don’t you try the Interne–

Me: <click>

Last month, The Atlantic posed the question: is Google making us stupid? I think we have our answer. Rather than turning the US into a pseudo surveillance state as Cory Doctorow envisioned, perhaps the reality is worse: a government that is so inefficient and ill-informed that it relies on a search engine to provide its citizens with access to their own government.