YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, iPad … and whatever else is about to take the world by storm, making all of those digital breakthroughs seem old news. Surely it's obvious by now that Canadians are going to be better off if we foster digital media creativity, rather than leaving it to people in other countries.
But tell that to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the body supposedly responsible for regulating electronic media for our well-being. The CRTC has decided to allow Bell and other big telecom companies to change the way Canadians are billed for Internet access. Metering, or usage-based billing (UBB), will mean that service providers can charge per byte in addition to their basic access charges.
The move is sure to stifle digital creativity in Canada while the rest of the world looks on and snickers.
This is not what a lot of small Internet providers who use Bell Canada's infrastructure wanted. But they are now subject to Bell Canada's requirements, and will be forced to usage-bill their own customers. That's how it's already rippling out to create an entirely different economy of Internet use in Canada. That's what the big telecoms wanted and the CRTC is in the process of giving it to them.
Throughout, the public has been bamboozled and divided in its opinion by the presentation of easy caricatures. That damn bandwidth hog next door downloading endless porn, shooter games and episodes of NCIS - why not tag him with an extra bill for clogging the pipes? After all, the telecoms can't be expected to lose money on the guy who comes to the all-you-can-eat buffet and scarfs down all the fried chicken, right?
Officials with smaller service providers say what Bell Canada is charging for "overages" is well beyond, even many times more, what it really costs to provide the extra bytes to customers.
So what's this really about? Bear in mind that Bell Canada and other big telecoms also are invested heavily in an old-fashioned media-delivery model called television. If you now have to pay by the byte to live your version of a rich digital life on the Internet, maybe the hits to your bank account will push you back in front of the television set.
Except that trying to herd Canadians in 2011 back to commercial-laden programs on TV is like trying to drive back the tide. Anyone with children knows they view the television set as a moribund, one-way screen versus the computer's portal into a realm of interactivity and content on demand.
That's the future, and everyone knows it. So why aren't we preserving the level playing field that has made the Internet such a vibrant cultural commons?
Forget that caricature of the slobbering porn addict next door. Canadians accessed a treasure trove of National Film Board works by the millions of downloads last year. Universities and libraries across the country are working to move priceless archives onto the Internet, where, the idea was, they'd be available to all. Not if it's too expensive to download them.
Consider the predicament of a small, independent website like mine, The Tyee. Already scraping by on limited resources, but recognizing our audience's desire for more audio and video, we are working with a network of multimedia producers who really know how to stretch a dollar. But they tell us that UBB threatens to make it too expensive for them to craft their products, considering what they need to download while doing their work, the amounts we can pay and the niche audiences likely to listen and watch.
So there you have it. Just as the world is ready to feast on what Canadians might cook up in the way of multimedia 3.0, Canada decides to meter the Internet, tilting the table sharply towards old-school TV networks and big corporations that can absorb the higher cost of doing business.
NDP digital affairs critic Charlie Angus gets what's at stake. "We've seen this all before with cellphones," he said last week. "Allowing the Internet Service Providers to ding you every time you download is a rip-off. Canada is already falling behind other countries in terms of choice, accessibility and pricing for the Internet. We need clear rules that put consumers first."
Forty thousand people have signed an online petition called Stop The Meter. The CRTC's final decision is likely mere days away. Let's hope the regulators think creatively and do the right thing.
David Beers is editor of The Tyee.