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opinion

Let’s start with the positive. It would probably be a good idea to change the name of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, as the federal Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel recommends in its new report, to the Canadian Communications Commission.

Because if the panel’s report is ever adopted, there won’t be a syllable that is breathed or printed electronically anywhere in this country that does not come under the commission’s supervision. All electronic media of any kind, Canadian or foreign, content providers or content aggregators, audiovisual or “alphanumeric” (text, in other words), would be subject to state regulation, with their licence to operate – and their subsidy, for virtually all of them would also be subsidized – dependent on obedience to its rules.

In brief, the panel is proposing to regulate the internet.

The panel starts from a reasonable enough premise. The digitization and distribution of content by electronic means has made a mockery of previously sacrosanct regulatory lines – not only the borders between countries, but also between different types of media and different modes of distribution. Canada, it writes, needs “a modernized communications legislative and regulatory framework that would better prepare the country for an era of constant and rapid technological change.”

For most, that reasonable premise leads to a reasonable conclusion – that in an age when everyone can communicate with everyone, by any means; when consumers have access, not just to a handful of television or radio stations, but hundreds, via cable or satellite, and thousands more online; when broadcasters are publishers and publishers are broadcasters, and when both can charge consumers directly for their product, rather than selling advertising around it; then there is less need for regulation, so far as it is even possible.

The panel, however, goes in the opposite direction: Let’s regulate everything.

I only wish I were exaggerating. “Traditional approaches to regulation,” it observes, are – obsolete? pointless? doomed? – “no longer enough.” The new regime it advocates would consequently apply to “all media content undertakings,” including “international online platforms.” It would “bring all those providing media content services to Canadians … within the scope of the Broadcasting Act and under the jurisdiction of the CRTC.”

It would be “platform agnostic and technology neutral.” It would apply to what the panel calls content curation (providers, whether broadcast or streaming, of “content over which the service provider has editorial control”), aggregation (including not only cable companies, but online news aggregators such as Yahoo News and, I’m guessing, the Drudge Report), and sharing – YouTube, Facebook and the like. I am not making this up. The panel wants to regulate Reddit.

All of these services, so far as they had “significant Canadian revenues” and delivered their content “by means of the internet,” would be required to register with the CRTC, which would be empowered to attach conditions to their registration, as it now attaches conditions to traditional broadcast licences.

And yes, that includes newspapers. “Historically,” the panel explains, “news content was only regulated by the CRTC if it was delivered through licensees such as radio and television stations, and specialty news services. Canadians are increasingly accessing news content online, which now consists of a mix of audio, audiovisual and text; so we have modified our definitions accordingly.” Quite.

The panel’s recommendations appear to exempt newspapers (in panelspeak, any “media content undertaking” whose “primary purpose is to provide a service for the dissemination of alphanumeric news content over which it exercises editorial control”) from the sort of comprehensive Canadian content regulations that would apply to the rest of the internet, from the spending requirements to be imposed on streaming services such as Netflix to the taxes (“levies”) and quotas (“discoverability requirements”) on aggregators and sharers.

But as to the rest: Who knows? Henceforth, we would be subject to the whims and dictates of the same agency that has until now busied itself banning broadcasters from showing the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and driving radio station shock jocks off the air. The implications for press freedom are obvious – so obvious, that one would expect the whole newspaper industry to rise up as one and reject it.

Except … the panel has lots of goodies for us, too. The $595-million earmarked for publishers in the most recent budget would, predictably, just be the start. Newspapers would be eligible for subsidies paid for out of the taxes on aggregators and sharers, who would also be obliged to link to Canadian news sites. (Sorry, did I say Canadian news sites? I meant Canadian sources of “accurate, trusted and reliable news.” As determined by, you guessed it, the CRTC.) Are we really going to bite the hand that feeds us, now or in the future?

The whole thing is just breathtaking – a regulatory power grab without precedent, either in Canada or the democratic world. Nobody elsewhere is proposing anything like it, and for good reason: because it’s insane. This kind of bureaucratic micromanagement, with its obsession with “cultural sovereignty” and “telling ourselves our own stories,” would have been hopelessly outdated in 1990. In 2020, it’s just embarrassing.

The panel boasts of its sweeping remit and fresh thinking. But it’s built on the same stale assumptions and expressed in the same bromides as a hundred previous reports. Defending its proposal, for example, to impose local spending quotas on Netflix and other foreign services, the panel simply states, as if it were self-evident, that “those who benefit from accessing our market … should have obligations to support Canadian content.”

But there’s no reason, moral or logical, to link the two. Netflix is not taking anything from Canadians that it has an obligation to put back. Neither is it free-riding on its competitors: It may not have the same obligations with regard to Cancon as domestic providers, but neither does it have the same benefits, such as access to production subsidies. It does, however, have a self-interest, as even the panel concedes, in making “Canadian programming that … will attract and appeal to Canadians.” So why force them to?

Which applies, of course, to the whole apparatus. Whatever once may have been the case, absolutely nothing today prevents Canadians from paying for Canadian content if they want to. So why force them to?