The Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel opted for making the internet and all of its subscribers pay – with their wallets and their freedom – to support the selfish demands of a small, unsettled segment within an otherwise flourishing and entrepreneurial creative industry, writes Peter Menzies.

By Peter Menzies, January 31, 2020

The concept of a free, unfettered internet through which Canadians can speak, learn and communicate without permission of the state was blown apart this week by a series of invasive and unjustifiable recommendations.

The Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel’s report tabled Wednesday didn’t just call, as many feared, for the extension of broadcasting-content regulation to the internet. It advocated for a sweeping series of interventions that would make all online media – from online sites such as Rabble to Rebel News and in any language – subject to government regulation.

For more than 25 years, an unfettered, profoundly democratic internet has thrived in Canada. Online entertainment providers have created unprecedented levels of prosperity within a creative sector that has grown from a $5-billion industry to almost $9-billion in the past decade. Print media have struggled to transition to online distribution but, while many have added video, they haven’t remotely challenged the traditional definition of broadcasting. Meanwhile, many new and innovative platforms have launched; YouTube has produced unsubsidized stars such as Lilly Singh and Justin Bieber and created, according to a Ryerson University study, 24,000 jobs. All of this without the protection of the regulated “system.”

And yet the panel, formed by the government to advise on modernization of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts, decided – in a breathtaking expansion of scope and bureaucratic hubris – not only to ignore that prosperity, but to rein it in. And it wants this done by redefining broadcasting to “extend beyond audio and audiovisual content to include alphanumeric news content made available to the public by means of telecommunications, collectively known as media content.” And “media content means audio or audiovisual content or alphanumeric news content.”

In other words, if you transmit, for commercial purposes, words, video or voice through the internet, text messages, fax or phone line, you will do so only with permission of a federal agency.

That’s right: After more than a century of non-interference in speech through telecommunications, it is suggested that the state will determine what constitutes news and, when the proposed objectives of the act are included, “trusted” news.

That indicates that the content of virtually every online information entity – magazines, newspapers, subscription newsletters, real estate listings, travel advisories, weather reports, relationship advice, think-tank analyses, craft beer reviews and the latest Ukrainian borscht recipe – may be subject to the stern eye of what assumedly will be thousands of Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commision (CRTC) bureaucrats. (A name change to the Canadian Communications Commission is suggested to reflect its new, omnipotent role.)

But the panel didn’t stop there. It went on to ask that new legislation apply to commercial media originating from outside the country “whether or not they have a place of business in Canada.” Assumedly that means not just Netflix, but The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, video games and who knows how many sites of an adult “audiovisual” nature may be expected at some point to offer required levels of Canadian content.

Not all will have to be licensed. The panel suggests the CRTC may exempt certain entities from that obligation. But all will be required to register and “contribute in an appropriate manner to the creation, production and discoverability of Canadian media content.” “Alphanumeric” news sites will not be subject to spending requirements and, while they may qualify for subsidy/tax credits, their “economic relationships” with content providers will be regulated.

Fairness demands noting that the panel made a number of sensible recommendations for which it should be commended. The suggestion that the CBC be weaned off accepting advertising is particularly welcome as is the consolidation of organizations supporting the two-thirds English, one-third French creative funding pools.

Yet, there are no recommendations among the 97 listed regarding safeguarding the independence of the regulator of news from political interference or of improving transparency regarding its decisions. Consumer issues are generally dealt with through talk of reviews, studies and consultations. Over all, the panel very clearly saw the internet primarily as the new servant of the Canadian-content industry and its roughly 3 per cent of gross domestic product. In doing so, it produced a series of recommendations that displayed a profoundly #okboomer view of modern communications.

All this when there was little evidence of a problem that could not have been solved through targeted, direct government funding. But the panel opted instead for making the internet and all of its subscribers pay – with their wallets and their freedom – to support the selfish demands of a small, unsettled segment within an otherwise flourishing and entrepreneurial creative industry.

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a former vice-chair of telecommunications for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

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