Peter Menzies is a former vice-chair of the CRTC.
The CRTC, through the recommendations in its Harnessing Change report released last Thursday, has risked setting back communications regulation by at least a decade and likely made an error in approach that will define the remainder of its current leadership’s term in office.
Since 1998, when it first pondered and poked at the presence of something called “new media,” the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has wisely rejected the demands of the creative sector to place controls on the internet and tax it. Yes, video stores have disappeared, newspapers are staggering, Uber has turned the taxi business on its head and every song ever written is available online for a modest subscription – but Canada’s official public funds-dependent film and television creators still believe there is no need for them to adapt, let alone change.
All that’s required to deal with this internet fad, they have more or less claimed, is for government to “harness” it. They have been, and this week were joined by the CRTC through it’s stunning capitulation to their demands, the very manifestation of the Big Government worldview as critiqued by Ronald Reagan: “If it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
It is expected that new CRTC administrations will attempt to address what they may view as an imbalance in their predecessors’ approach. But last week, chairman Ian Scott’s CRTC – in a stunning reversal of the views held by previous Commissions governed by Chrétien, Martin and Harper appointees – called for the internet to be both taxed and regulated. All of it. Everywhere. All the time. It called for new legislation to confirm that any video posted online for commercial purposes be incorporated “into the broadcasting system. This should apply to traditional and new services, whether Canadian or non-Canadian.”
Despite Mr. Scott’s assertion that none of this is radical, its scope is mind-boggling. According to this report, every podcast and audio-video news report from anywhere (including those posted by this newspaper) should be subject to the scrutiny of steely-eyed Ottawa-Gatineau bureaucrats as they lure the world once beyond the regulator’s grasp into “the system.” And to ensure change is not just harnessed but milked for the care and feeding of Cancon creators, those same bureaucrats insist that a tax be levied on the country’s Internet Service Providers and paid by – you got it – everyone in the country with an internet subscription including you, me, single moms, widows and so forth. To be fair, the regulator insists that such a move would be “revenue neutral” – perhaps meaning that every dollar collected from you will be spent on a Canadian film somewhere.
All this because the cable subscription cash cow that has funded all those shows and films that most of you have never heard of let alone watched (yes, yes, there has been the occasional success) is in modest decline and people’s viewing habits are moving online. All this despite the massive increases in foreign investment in Canadian film in recent years. All this despite the CRTC’s own massive Lets Talk TV undertaking that consulted tens of thousands of Canadians and dragged segments of the production industry, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. And all this despite Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly having rejected that tax-and-regulate approach and sensibly persisted in her view that change must be embraced.
Ms. Joly, similar to recent CRTC administrations, has worked to put the interests of average Canadians – such as consumers, the middle class – first when it comes to regulation. She has wisely moved away from the days when the system’s primary obsession seemed to be divvying up the pie and distributing the wealth generated from those average Canadians to those living the dream within “the system.” Remarkably, Harnessing Change rejects that approach and signals that under Ms. Joly’s appointees, the pie-divvying days may be back.
It is not just the foolishness and incomprehensible impossibility of the tax-and-regulate-the-internet recommendations that damns this report: The mindset informing it should be taken as a national emergency alert.
The CRTC no longer believes, according to this document, that it and its co-dependents must adapt to change; it believes that change must adapt to it.
And that can’t happen.