The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission began hearings on February 17th in Gatineau to gain a better understanding of the “New Media” environment, to determine whether there should be some sort of regulation of online media. Though there are currently Canadian content requirements for broadcasters of traditional media, it is unlikely that the CRTC will impose similar measures on online media outlets that broadcast in Canada, as such a feat would be virtually impossible due to the large number of these online broadcasters. If any regulations are adopted in order to promote Canadian content online, they would likely involve the creation of a levy, and this will likely be charged to internet service providers.
In the opening remarks of the hearing last Tuesday, it was stated by the Chairman of the CRTC that the decision in 1999 to not regulate the Internet was primarily based on the following findings:
- licensing New Media would not contribute to its development or benefit the Canadian broadcasting system
- exempting New Media undertakings would not have an undue impact on the ability of licensed undertakings to fulfill their regulatory requirements, and
- the technology needed to develop in key ways before New Media services could compete more directly with traditional media.
It is quite obvious that things have changed over the last 10 years, and the above statements may not be found to be the case today. However, it does not necessarily follow that anything should be done just because the actual online broadcasts have caught up in quality and exposure to their traditional counterparts. The inherent differences between the actual mediums, through which these same broadcasts occur, will no doubt have an effect on the actual exposure to Canadians. A major question to be considered is how such a promotion of Canadian content, with the help of funding from levies, can occur online when there are seemingly no mechanisms to really control the delivery of the content to Canadian viewers. At the same time, it seems to be the feeling in the CRTC that something must be done due to the fact that more and more Canadians are viewing programs online, meaning their exposure to mandated Canadian content on traditional media is diminishing, and the amount of Canadian content online is far behind that of the U.S. and our other foreign counterparts.
The imposition of a levy may seem to be trivial with respect to its effects on actually regulating content, in the sense that users will not really be limited to what they will be able to access. With television and radio, the effects of increasing a particular type of content is more pronounced. Due to the vastness of the internet in comparison to cable and local radio, an increase in Canadian-based content can still go unnoticed. Even if additionally funded by the public, there is very little guarantee that this investment will be returned to those paying for it. Of course, ISPs have said that any tax they would be forced to pay would be passed on to their customers.
However, at the heart of the issue lies the clash of politics with respect to regulation, as the notion of a government interfering with the internet still seems to strike many as much more serious than interference with television and radio. Perhaps it is because we have gotten used to an essentially unregulated online world. Perhaps it is the symbolic nature that many have ascribed to the internet: it is seen as a new bastion of complete freedom; a pure space of classic liberalism. Even the potentially minimal effects of a levy would be unwelcome to many in principle. These concerns are not likely to be taken seriously by the CRTC, since its mandate inherently requires such tampering if deemed necessary. In his opening address, the Chairman also stated that “we must respect the principles of openness and individual choice that govern the internet while maintaining access to, and for Canadian stories, opinions and ideas.”
Various parties have already spoken and will continue to do so until the second week of March. Many groups representing Canadian artists and producers are asking the CRTC to impose levies on ISPs in order to allow Canadians to have a chance at competing in the online market. Internet service providers have held that the imposition of a levy would result in increased costs to users and would stifle the growth of internet usage. Of course, besides the principles at issue are the presumably millions of dollars at stake for different interested parties. Let the lobbying continue.