Does federal panel pose a threat to net neutrality in Canada?

By early 2020, we’ll know what the members think the government should do to modernize decrepit legislation

If you want to know how much in extra fees you might be paying or how much Canada intends to meddle with online content to make sure you watch what the government wants you to watch, you should start paying attention now.

This week, the government panel reviewing the nation’s broadcasting and telecommunications legislation (known as BTLR) released its first report. As advertised, it’s a summary of what the panelists heard.

What you need to get ready for early in 2020 is the more substantive report outlining what the panel thinks the government should do to modernize its decrepit legislation in these areas.

It’s a mug’s game to predict what the panel of seven led by chair Janet Yale will come up with following the public and corporate consultations they undertook beginning last September.

One concern – that six of the seven members of the panel are based in Ottawa and Montreal – may have been mitigated by the panel’s travels. But while that’s more likely to address the issue of what they heard, it’s unlikely to pacify those who insist this strong regional bias in the panel’s construct will definitely influence how they heard and what they think about it.

Having sat on dozens of panels in my years with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), there’s no question in my mind that ears are as important as voices when it comes to dissecting arguments.

The other fair assumption given the composition of the panel is that it will lean towards regulating online video in a fashion the members believe will benefit Canada’s Montreal-centric cultural lobby, as was hinted at in the CRTC’s Harnessing Change report of a year ago.

That report recommended that the people who bring you Canadian content regulations for television and radio should expand their influence to the online world – something they’ve successfully resisted for more than 20 years.

It will come as no surprise that in the absence of the CRTC’s guiding hand, creativity, innovation, Canadian content (ask Justin Bieber) and investment have flourished like never before.

Many in the cultural lobby – the one that effectively removed former Heritage minister Melanie Joly from her post due to what others saw as her strong preference for a 21st-century view of the world – would like to harness that change to create a more predictable income stream for themselves.

The only other item to raise a suspicious eyebrow came in Yale’s speech to the Telecom Summit earlier this month. In an otherwise non-contentious listing of laudable goals, she wondered how “do we ensure there are independent, trusted, accurate and diverse Canadian sources of information?”

This means the panel may believe it’s not just dealing with the origins of online content (Canadian versus foreign) but with genres within it. If that’s the case, the panel’s thinking poses a clear threat to the principle of net neutrality that, to its credit, the current government has steadfastly defended.

It also means that, when combined with the instincts revealed in the Harnessing Change report, there’s a definite movement (slide, I’d call it) towards regulating not only broadcasters but those in the old newspaper business now functioning online, those posting videos on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc., and even videos of grandchildren posted on Facebook for Granny and Grandpa.

This instinct must be resisted at every turn. It can turn the entire industry on its head in Canada – to the detriment of most of us.

Those who benefit are few in number and represent only a well-organized portion of the cultural industry that steadfastly refuses to adapt to the change wrought in the past 10 to 15 years by what they appear to view as this Internet video fad.

Instead of evolving, they continue to demand the entitlements bestowed upon them by the CRTC’s 1980s ‘system.’

In my years at the CRTC, I would occasionally remark during our deliberations that “this is the only room in the country in which the discussion we’re having makes sense.”

The idea that online video content should be determined by a government agency falls directly into that category. Yale’s job is to make sure her meeting room doesn’t become the one I once sat in.

Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC, and advises tech companies on regulatory policy (the views here are his own).

© Troy Media


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