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.