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Why Changes to Internet Regulation MatterWhy Changes to Internet Regulation Matter

Why Changes to Internet Regulation Matter

A new federal approach to governing broadcasting proposes bringing the Internet under authority of the CRTC, sparking questions of what it means for Canadians’ online access. Two former long-time CRTC commissioners express their concerns.

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Why Changes to Internet Regulation Matter February 4, 2020  |  By Peter Stockland
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Concern is growing to kerfuffle in the circles where such things matter over last week’s proposed changes to federal approach to governing broadcasting in this country.

After two days of almost baffling silence following release of a report calling for sweeping changes to how – and over what – the CRTC exercises its regulatory powers, pundits and politicians alike began to sit up and spout about it over the weekend.

But two veteran former CRTC commissioners who spoke with Convivium were insistent that the report’s vision is so radical and far-reaching that the discussion has to go far beyond talking head circles. Ordinary Canadians, they said, need to understand how the proposals of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel affect them – because affect them they will.

“It’s an enormous expansion of regulatory authority over speech,” said Tim Denton, who specializes in technology law and was a national CRTC commissioner from 2008 to 2013. “Even if half or a quarter of (the report) is implemented with regards to the speech and licensing power, we’re in trouble.”

The critical shift would be to bring the Internet itself under the authority of the CRTC, which would be renamed the Canadian Communications Commission. Currently, the Commission regulates broadcast – essentially TV and radio signals – and telecommunications: phones and phone lines. So, standard issue bureaucratic turf squabbling, right?

Far from it, says, Peter Menzies, who served as vice-chairman of telecommunications at the Commission. Menzies believes the federal report’s call for a melding of those two very distinct roles has the very real potential to limit how freely Canadians can access the Internet, and what content they’ll be able to find when they do.

“The Internet is not another form of broadcast,” he says. “It’s a way speech is communicated between Canadians. It’s (like) your phone line, and what’s being proposed is as if the government suddenly began regulating what you can say on your phone, how often, and to who.”

He cites as an example the way even the current federal broadcast regulations govern religious programming, which are tightly controlled in terms of the number of licenses available, what can or cannot be said, and the approach that must be taken to other forms of faith.

“If you have a religious website, will you want to be told you can only provide certain kinds of content for so many hours a day, or that you have to give space to alternative religious views? Those are exactly the rules in place for religious broadcasting. But the Internet doesn’t work like that.”

The same “logical failure” would affect all other forms of Internet content, Menzies notes. Under the proposals not before Parliament, even global content giants such as Facebook and Twitter would be regulated as though they are equivalent to a small-town afternoon radio talk show.

In Timothy Denton’s words, the very idea of “licensing” the Internet the way radio and TV are now licensed in Canada means obtaining “speech by permission” of the government. That regulatory power becomes doubly dark indeed, Denton says, when factoring in the report’s call for CRTC control of news sites and what it refers to as “alphanumeric content” – what the rest of us Dull Normals call letters and numbers or… written words.

“If you and I set up the Stockland-Denton Reactionary Website and people come to us for interviews, are we news? Would we be subject to licensing? Would we be subject to heavy fines? And all this would now depend not on a law, but on the political majority operating within the (CRTC) at a given time. There would be nothing preventing (interview content) that concerns politics or cultural or social affairs from being declared regulatable by (government),” Denton says.

Over the weekend, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault insisted there might be two sets of licensing requirements for news sites based on size. Global Goliaths such as Facebook would be treated more stringently than would small Canadian media outlets. Guilbeault also stressed that nothing has been adopted yet and won’t be until the government has a chance to study all 97 of the report’s recommendations.

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By Monday, the minister had walked his words back pretty emphatically, insisting: “Let me be clear. Our government has no intention to impose licensing requirements on news organizations, nor will we try to regulate news content.”

But that’s small comfort to critics such as Menzies and Denton. They’ve spent enough time within the Ottawa regulatory world to know how dangerous ideas can disappear for several years before re-emerging as fully formed monstrosities resembling “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” from Stephen King’s Children of the Corn.

Menzies expresses optimism that well-applied political pressure from ordinary Canadians, combined with push back from media giants should be enough to ensure the report’s worst elements just go away. Left to fester, though, there are enough special interests who’ll benefit from the proposed changes to ensure they are adopted in some form. Beyond the violations of free speech, he says, the lasting pity would be the retrograde effect on communications technology in Canada.

“This comes from the same mentality as those who called cars “horseless carriages” because they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of automobiles. Confusing broadcast with the Internet is the same level of failure to understand.”

For his part, Denton is less sanguine about the Internet’s mega-players stepping up to protect Canadians from speech-limiting communications regulatory overreach. Only a vigorous public debate, engaged by all players including ordinary net users, can see the thing off properly, he says.

“When the bottom line’s dollars, it’s very rare companies will say to a government ‘thank you very much, please get lost.’ There is immense cowardice within business in relation to government regulation. The only way these things are ever stopped is by people waking up to what is being proposed – and opposing it. This thing is happening now in real time and it has to be fought with the resources available. I will only feel safe when it is dead and buried.”

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