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COMMENTARY: Government sending unhelpful mixed messages on telecom, broadcast regulations

CRTC opens review of sales practices by major telecoms
WATCH (Oct. 22, 2018): Big telecom companies have long been accused of using misleading or aggressive sales tactics. Now they're the focus of hearings being held by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Canada may be on the verge of a massive overhaul of our telecom and broadcasting regulations, so it would be helpful if our government could articulate why change is necessary and what it’s hoping to accomplish.

Unfortunately, what we’re getting instead is mixed messages from the government on whether it’s prepared to embrace some of the more alarming and contentious recommendations from a panel’s deep dive into Canada’s regulatory landscape. Absent is any coherent vision of what a modernized regulatory landscape looks like and how best to unleash the potential of what Canadians have to offer.

The report in question was the result of 18 months of work by the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review (BTLR) panel. Its report is a rather broad look at the telecommunications landscape in Canada and contains almost 100 total recommendations.

READ MORE: Heritage minister praises ‘tremendous’ broadcasting report as business urges him to ignore it

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There is much to sort out when it comes to how we regulate many of these areas and almost certainly a need to update and modernize many of these rules. In broadcasting, there are blurred lines when it comes to who and what actually constitutes a “broadcaster,” and we should carefully consider whether our old rules still make sense in this new era.

The array of regulations imposed on traditional broadcasters (such as Corus Entertainment, the parent company of Global News) might make sense in an era where those companies are competing exclusively amongst themselves, but we now have a situation in which we have regulated “broadcasters” competing directly with unregulated “broadcasters.” It seems like an untenable situation.

Perhaps the obvious response would be to simply ease those existing regulations and allow traditional broadcasters to be more agile and adaptive in this new environment. This report suggests a more paternalistic approach where our existing regulations are simply modified and expanded.

READ MORE: Netflix, other streaming services should be forced to create CanCon, pay digital tax — panel

But the conversation about what that modern level playing field might look like has been overshadowed by a bizarre and unnecessary debate around whether the government needs to license news organizations.

The report recommends that the Canadian Radio-television and Communications Commission (CRTC) — or the Canadian Communications Commission, as it would instead be known — have oversight over virtually all media content, whether it comes from a “curator,” an “aggregator” or a “platform for sharing.” Any media company that falls under one of those definitions — whether Canadian or otherwise — would have to register with or be licensed by the CRTC and be subject to all sorts of new rules regarding how it does business, including how it features and displays content.

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Broadcast review panel recommends CBC get out of selling advertising
Broadcast review panel recommends CBC get out of selling advertising

“Aggregators,” for example, would have to give priority and prominence to content from trusted Canadian sources. The regulator, of course, would be responsible for determining which organizations are deemed “trusted.” Companies that fail to comply could be hit with massive fines.

While there’s no shortage of nonsense on the internet, a government stamp of approval for news sites is not the way to address it. Having the state decide who is “trustworthy” could easily backfire on those upon whom that title is bestowed.

Conservative critic says broadcast review report doesn’t address inequalities in media market
Conservative critic says broadcast review report doesn’t address inequalities in media market

Much of this comes dangerously close to infringing on freedom of expression and freedom of the press and represents a massive regulatory overreach. Moreover, this needlessly distracts from the more pressing issues we ought to be addressing.

It would have been easy enough for the government to reject some of these sillier ideas while still embracing the broader idea of a sensible modernization of broadcasting regulations.

Instead, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault went on television over the weekend and explicitly endorsed the idea of government licensing of media outlets. Then, the following day, at a hastily organized news conference, he declared: “Our government has no intention to impose licensing requirements on news organizations nor will we try to regulate news content.”

READ MORE: Heritage minister clarifies government won’t be licensing news outlets following backlash

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Much like the government’s ill-conceived newspaper bailout, this has sparked a political firestorm, and many Canadians are now understandably distrustful of the government’s intent. It didn’t need to be that way.

The government should have steered clear of these landmines and kept the focus on how to update the funding model for Canadian content and how to ensure that Canadian companies are strongly positioned to continue delivering Canadian content in the face of growing global competition. Some of these recommendations speak to those aims. Others, though, deserve to be dead on arrival.

The government appears to have belatedly and awkwardly come to this conclusion. Hopefully, officials haven’t poisoned the well for the important conversations that ought to follow this report.

Rob Breakenridge is the host of ‘Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge’ on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.