If you are a politician who is going to have to do something tricky and potentially unpopular, it's a good idea to make sure your friends have your back.
Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly was in Paris this week doing exactly that, taking meetings with French and European culturecrats who can be counted on to understand Canada's dilemma: How does a mid-sized power maintain any notion of cultural sovereignty in the face of the aptly acronymed FANG? (That's Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.) France, more aggressive than Canada in protecting and promoting its cultural industries, has always lent a sympathetic ear, and Paris is the home of UNESCO, the United Nations body charged with protecting culture internationally.
Joly's trip included a visit to UNESCO headquarters, where she handed over a $100,000 cheque to the agency's fund for cultural diversity in the developing world. The sum is paltry; what is important is the symbolism: The fund may be busy helping indigenous youth make films in Brazil or providing digital training for Senegalese artists, but at UNESCO, cultural diversity is also code for "Anything but Hollywood."
Along with a long list of counties that includes France, Germany and China, Canada is a signatory to the 2005 UNESCO convention on cultural diversity, a series of bland statements about how everybody has a right to their culture and governments have a right to protect culture. It all sounds like motherhood, but it certainly isn't apple pie: The United States, which in the past has fought viciously against what it perceives to be tariff barriers aimed at Hollywood product, has never signed the convention.
Joly, who has just completed the public consultations for the Canadian government's current review of cultural policy, was also interviewed on French public television this week. Hearing her reel off stats about the impressive size of Canada's cultural industries before describing how Canadian citizens love both cultural diversity and digital distribution, it was encouraging to realize that Ottawa finally has the problem in its sights. Canadians want and need Canadian news, information and entertainment, and producing it, whether that's a video game, a TV drama or a newscast, is a major industry worth billions to the economy. But Canadians' digital habits are stripping millions out of the system as the dollars spent on ad buys, Netflix subscriptions and Amazon purchases all flutter down to California. Meanwhile, Canadian content risks drowning in the Internet ocean.
It would be impossible to extend the Canadian-content quotas that have governed television and radio since the 1970s to YouTube, Netflix or music-streaming services. Instead, the solution lies in making lots of great Canadian content and, equally important, marketing it in ways that Canadians can easily find it. That costs money and the broadcast levies and ad revenues that traditionally paid for Canadian programming can't possibly keep pace – even if it's fair to keep asking CTV and Global, Rogers and Bell to pay levies that Netflix doesn't.
So the sector needs money and, unless the minister decides to simply leave things as they are and rely on general federal revenue to fund what they can, there are only a few possible solutions.
One idea – and this is where things get tricky – is to attempt to bring at least Netflix, if not also Google and YouTube, into the system, and ask the service to contribute a percentage of revenues raised in Canada to Canadian production. This is sometimes denounced as a "Netflix tax" but since Canadian broadcasters already pay these levies and Netflix seems eager to invest in some Canadian production (with such CBC co-pros as Alias Grace and Anne of Green Gables), all the government would be asking is for Netflix to behave like any other corporate citizen.
The second idea is trickier still, and that is to pass the necessary laws so that the government could place a small levy either on Internet service-provider revenues – since these are the new equivalent of the cable and satellite distributors – or directly on Internet bills themselves. I hear the comments section screaming already, "You can't tax the Internet!" And yet all such a levy would do is recognize that the ISPs profit greatly from distributing content for which they never pay.
In an inequitable marketplace in which distributors make millions but content creators are going broke, this is not a Canadian cultural question but an international issue of both creativity and fairness. And that's why it's good to see Joly taking the issue to Europe. Various European governments have tried, without much success, imposing Internet taxes, Internet licence fees and even copyright levies on search engines, while the French government is currently suing Google for corporate taxes it allegedly owes.
None of these fights are easy nor are they publicly popular: FANG may be a monolithic bully whose business practices beggar local cultural economies, but it's hard to imagine contemporary life without its services. That's yet another of the Internet's oversized paradoxes and if Joly is actually going to tackle it, she'll be needing some friends.