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Smiling woman standing in field with digital camera (Jupiterimages/www.jupiterimages.com)

Dream big: some modest reforms for Canada's media landscape Add to ...

We live in a special time, a time that Ron Diebert and Rohan Rohozinski of the Citizen's Lab at the University of Toronto call a constitutive moment. Actions taken now will lock in the look, feel, security parameters and market structure of the media space for years to come.

We need to pay attention because we have peculiar arrangements for the telecom-media-Internet (TMI) industries in Canada. They are concentrated by historical standards and by those of liberal capitalist democracies in general.

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Unlike elsewhere, eight of the biggest companies in Canada, which account for three quarters of all TMI revenues, are family-owned and controlled: Thomson Reuters (Globe & Mail), Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor (QMI), Cogeco, Astral, Toronto Star and Transcontinental. And unlike most modern firms, just a few are shareholder-controlled: Bell, Telus, MTS Allstream, Post Media. The rest are public service media, or state-owned outlets, as QMI owner Pıerre Karl Peladeau likes to deride them: the CBC, NFB, SaskTel and CANARIE. Our regulator is weak, hedged about by Cabinet Directives, and unwilling to act (at least not much).

We are amongst the most wired citizens of the world, but the arrangement of TMI facilities in Canada are substandard; not from the vantage point of utopian ideals, but of a digital free press in a liberal capitalist democracy. Ours is a kind of backward media capitalism, and that must change.

While I sleep in the days ahead, three issues will come to a head:

  1. On July 11, the CRTC hearings will decide the fate of the pay-per model of the Internet (UBB and bandwidth caps) pioneered and imposed by the big six ISPs. All hell broke loose last January when the incumbents got regulatory approval to pin their hated pay-per model on the independent ISPs that connect the five per cent of Internet users not served by the incumbents.
  2. We will see if the CRTC has the wisdom and courage to pick the right tools to effectively deal with vertical integration and concentration in the TMI industries.
  3. The CRTC "fact finding inquiry" will examine whether online video distributors such as Netflix, YouTube, AppleTV will be freely accessible or regulated like broadcasters.

By my estimation, each hearing involves about a hundred submissions of about 30 pages each. That's nearly 10,000 pages altogether. Sadly, the CTRC's "truly primitive" website - as New York City's Cardozo Law School Professor Susan Crawford refers to it - will make it nearly impossible for the average Canadian to stay on top of all these reports.

So who has time for this? The incumbents and their well-heeled lobbyists, that's who! I've been on sabbatical for the last year and I'm exhausted tracking this stuff day after day.

Others, such as the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, participate in these processes as much as they can. For PIAC it's a real problem, because late in the game it just learned that the CRTC's fact finding expedition on new media isn't a real hearing, so there goes their funding

The rabble-rousing group, Open Media, is holding its fire for this week's UBB Hearings. Rightly so, since it put the issue of the pay-per-Internet model on the public radar to begin with. It's boycotting the fact-finding mission not only because resources are stretched thin, but also to protest the fact that the CRTC buckled to vested interests' pleadings to have the proceeding advanced from 2014 to now, even though similar examinations occurred just two years ago.

Google and Apple also scolded the CRTC for allowing matters to get all bungled in a kind of regulatory trench warfare. Rather than calling for expanded regulations, the CBC and NFB stated that they just want to be able to deliver their content to as many people, anywhere, any time and across as many platforms and devices as possible. Mirko Bibic, Bell's regulatory front man, called this idea "preposterous" at the vertical integration hearings two weeks ago.

The battle over the future of media is not the result of new industrial arrangements, digitization, or newfangled economic theory, but endemic to situations where those who control the medium also control the messages.

In the 1900s, for example, the Canadian Pacific Telegraph Co. and Great Northwestern Telegraph Co. (the latter owned by the New York-based goliath, Western Union) had exclusive distribution rights for the Associated Press news wire service in Canada. To fortify their dominant position in the lucrative telegraph business against smaller rivals (e.g. the Dominion Telegraph Co in Canada and Postal Telegraph Co. in the US), the Canadian Pacific Tel. Co. and Great Northwestern Tel. Co. gave away the AP's news service for free to the dominant daily newspaper in each town across the country.

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