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Ottawa has done little to convince us Bill C-10 is in the public interest

Increasingly opting for streaming services as opposed to traditional television, Canadians are concerned when the government starts mucking around. They simply don’t have confidence Ottawa will do what’s right, and they’re right to think that.

The latest pushback involves Bill C-10 – formally An Act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. The bill is ostensibly a measure to ensure online providers such as Netflix are subject to the same rules as traditional broadcasters.

The government says the idea is to level the playing field. Critics say it’s little more than an attempt to protect traditional media corporations while opening the door to bureaucrats monitoring, judging and perhaps controlling what individuals post to the likes of YouTube and TikTok – there’s nothing that motivates public backlash like threatening the flow of cat videos.

As with most new government policies, the motivation is clear: money. OpenMedia calls it a fast cash-grab for traditional broadcast industries, an attempt to keep the profits flowing to legacy companies such as Bell Media, Rogers and Corus Entertainment.

The government claims it’s looking to promote Canadian content (CanCon), shifting into overdrive in the last couple of weeks to deny any intent of regulating users’ postings.

“The bill is not about what Canadians do online. It is about what the web giants do not do, which is to support Canadian stories and music,” Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in the House of Commons on last week as criticism mounted. “We have and will continue to improve the bill so that it can serve Canadian creators.”

Guilbeault argues critics are “siding with web giants” in opposition to Bill C-10.

That’s not how media expert Michael Geist sees it. Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law, calls the bill a dangerous attack on free speech.

“All of these kinds of provisions play into a kind of a general theme of a government that is becoming increasingly distrustful of the internet, and of the speech of millions of Canadians on it,” he said of Bill C-10 in a recent radio interview.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has long been under fire for its anachronistic ways of dealing with television in an internet age. Specifically, people want it to keep its mitts off of Netflix.

Ever-evolving technology means the internet is the future of television. You would think that the CRTC, being an agency of the government, would be moving to ensure the transition best serves the public interest, i.e. you and me. You would be wrong.

As ever, the bureaucrats are working to justify their own existence and thereby save their jobs – doing what bureaucrats do best – and doing the bidding of their masters, the big telcos. For years, the main goal of the CRTC has been to ensure consumers pay overinflated rates to line the pockets of the favoured group of producers and, most importantly, the likes of Bell and Rogers.

That reality explains why the CRTC has failed to protect Canadians from being subjected to the whims of highly-concentrated media conglomerates  – we’re the most concentrated media market in the G8.

Even as the internet plays more and more of a role in our lives – for better or worse, given the privacy concerns – the big telcos here are intent on taking control, driving up prices and blocking competition. You should be very worried about their attempts to control content and the pipeline, essentially becoming rigid and profiteering gatekeepers.

What we need the CRTC to do – and what the organization’s history and incestuous relationship with the industry it’s supposed to be regulating say it won’t do – is ensure the internet remains open and accessible to all – what’s called net neutrality.

Network neutrality can be considered a founding principle of the internet, say the likes of OpenMedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. With a few small exceptions, it is the de facto standard of non-discriminatory treatment that has governed the traffic of digital information up to this point. Under this regime, an internet user is free to use any equipment, content, application or service on a non-discriminatory basis without interference from the network provider. Net neutrality means that the network provider’s only job is to move data – not to choose which data to privilege with higher quality service.

It’s not a new idea: just look at the likes of the electricity grid, roads, railways and the telephone as examples of networks that anyone can use, a principle known as common carriage.

As much as the CRTC is making itself irrelevant with its bureaucratic ways – like the Senate, many of us would see it scrapped entirely – there is a role to play in making sure the carriers are divorced from the content. Given the media concentration in this country, the big telecom players have their fingers in the every facet of what we watch on television. That’s got to stop, particularly as it applies to Rogers and Bell looking to throttle access while charging exorbitant rates for both the content and the conduit.

“There’s no crisis for funding for their broadcasts that qualify as traditional CanCon, which reached a several year peak in 2018 and has remained stable over the last 10 years. But overall revenue from television broadcast has been declining for these companies since 2014 – people are less and less inclined to pay for their overpriced, overstuffed cable packages,” says an OpenMedia report.

“We believe the government should slow down and take seriously their promise to help us tell Canadian stories. Given that the financial crisis for our funding for Canadian stories supposedly driving C-10’s haste just doesn’t exist, we need to hit pause now, and make sure that the reforms we’re building are truly about supporting innovative, culturally diverse Canadian content everywhere on the internet.” 

That Bill C-10 simply panders to legacy corporations is a legitimate concern. The potential for more egregious monitoring of individuals’ online posting falls into the category, even if there is a certain amount of paranoia among certain segments of the population. We have every reason to distrust government actions as a whole, and especially where technology is concerned: governments have done little to protect the public’s rights and privacy when it comes to invasive social media companies, nor to impose anti-trust measures on technology giants.

Bill C-10 does little for citizens, with the potential for harm. Government denials fail to convince.

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