By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
There’s no problem that can’t be solved through increased regulation. At least that was the takeaway from a panel tasked with updating Canada’s telecom and broadcast laws. While the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel’s report, a year-and-a-half in the making, includes 97 recommendations, one has really raised concern with Canadians, and for good reason.
Recommendation 56 suggests that the existing licensing regime in the Broadcasting Act be accompanied by a registration regime. Such a change would require a person carrying on a media content undertaking by means of the internet to register, unless otherwise exempt. While the stated goal is to level the playing field between Canadian broadcasters, who have to pay licenses and fees, and their online competitors, who don’t, the wording is too broad. Does every podcaster in their closet need a license? How about every blogger, hyper-local news site or Facebook group? The idea of requiring media outlets to be registered smacks of authoritarianism and it’s a flavour Canadians don’t much like.
Perhaps it all boils down to concerns over the stated “heart” of the recommendations, with the report saying, “This new model would bring all those providing media content services to Canadians — whether online or through conventional means, whether foreign or domestic, whether or not they have a place of business in Canada — within the scope of the Broadcasting Act and under the jurisdiction of the CRTC.” The problem is that while we want Netflix, Facebook and Google to no longer have an unfair advantage over Canadian broadcasters, we don’t want to see the vast number of small players, from one person and their camera, to small local newsrooms, subject to control and pressure from government. The problem is that registration is a key part of this and any registration model requires a government bureaucracy and enforcement to oversee it.
In the days since the story broke, the government has backed away from the licensing aspect. On Monday, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault called a press conference to clarify earlier comments. He was quoted by the CBC, saying “Let me be clear. Our government has no intention to impose licensing requirements on news organizations, nor will we try to regulate news content.” But this idea is baked into so many of the recommendations.
The internet has resulted in the proliferation of more news sources than we could ever have imagined a few decades ago and this fracturing of the media landscape has created some problems. It has bred click-bait, fabricated stories and a lack of accountability that comes when you can’t march right down to a media outlet and talk to someone in charge. It has resulted in coverage that often resembles a plague of locusts, swarming from story to story, leaving nothing in its wake. It requires those consuming the news to be more vigilant than in the past. But it has also created space for more voices, allowed citizens to report their own experiences and allowed people to access a much broader range of news.
Despite concerns, many of the recommendations are positive. For example, there is an entire section about making advanced telecommunications more accessible; a recommendation that the CRTC should expand its information gathering and reporting on network neutrality and one that Canadians should be able to access and consume media content safely and securely and be assured that their data and privacy are respected and protected. It also recommends requiring foreign subscription services to collect GST on subscriptions, an unfair advantage they currently hold.
I don’t envy the committee, there are clearly issues that need to be addressed, but it’s hard to use regulation to solve problems almost entirely related to the internet’s ever-changing and fluid nature.