Concern is growing over proposed changes to the federal approach to governing broadcasting in Canada.
After two days of almost baffling silence following the release of a report calling for sweeping changes to how – and over what – the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) exercises its regulatory powers, pundits and politicians are starting to sit up and spout about it.
Two former CRTC commissioners warn that the report’s vision is radical and far-reaching.
“It’s an enormous expansion of regulatory authority over speech,” said Timothy 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 under the authority of the CRTC, which would be renamed the Canadian Communications Commission. Currently, the commission regulates TV and radio signals, as well as phones and phone lines.
That’s a problem for Peter Menzies, who served as CRTC vice-chairman of telecommunications. Menzies believes the report’s recommendations have 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 – limiting the number of licences available, what can or can’t be said and the approach that must be taken to other faiths.
“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.”
The same “logical failure” would affect all other forms of Internet content, Menzies notes. Under the proposals, even global content giants such as Facebook and Twitter would be regulated as though they’re equivalent to a small-town afternoon radio talk show.
In 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 call written words.
“If you and I set up (a 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.
Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault initially said there might be two sets of licensing requirements for news sites based on size. Global giants such as Facebook would be treated more stringently than would small Canadian media outlets.
But he has now walked back his words, insisting: “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.
Denton says only a vigorous public debate, engaged by all players including ordinary net users, can see the thing off properly.
“The only way these things are ever stopped is by people waking up to what is being proposed – and opposing it,” he says. “I will only feel safe when it is dead and buried.”