Lest there be doubt

Lest you be in doubt that the CRTC believes it has authority over video delivered across the Internet, I refer you to the transcript of the hearing currently underway in Hull regarding the policy framework for local and community television.

In this portion the Chairman is taking issue with the way the counsel for Cogeco, Yves Mayrand, was speaking about the “unlicensed” portion of the broadcasting system, but this term includes the Internet, as I will explain. Yves Mayrand had referred to it as “unregulated”.

Mayrand said:

3618 Now with respect to the notion that perhaps YouTube is part of the community element of the broadcasting system, I’ll leave that to the Commission, but it sounds a little bit odd that, you know, platforms controlled outside of the Canadian space could be considered as part of the community element, but I’ll leave that to you.

The Chairman replied:

3619 THE CHAIRPERSON: You see and maybe your difficulty of seeing that is based on — and you’ve repeated a number of occasions in your oral representation of always referring to the unlicensed element of the broadcasting system as unregulated, as opposed to what it really is and that is unlicensed.

Now consider what this says. The Chairman goes out of his way to correct what he believes is a misapprehension that part or all of Youtube might fail to be considered part of the Canadian broadcasting system. Now this is an astonishing comment when you think about it.

In the calculus of the Commission, full-motion video means “programming” and programming means “broadcasting” and hence is licensable. If programmers are not licensed they need to be “exempted”. But in any case you write and speak by permission from the state, as long as you convey your thoughts by video, or associated with video.

When the Chairman speaks of the portions of the broadcasting jurisdiction (which include the Internet) not yet subject to licensing as “unlicensed” but not “unregulated”, it conveys the notion that they remain so because those unlicensed portions do not yet have a significant effect on the broadcasting system. The significance of the effects on the broadcasting system would lie in the minds of future commissioners to assess. The criterion for subjecting websites to licensing derives entirely from concerns for the health of our broadcasting system. No criterion derives from concerns for free speech, government overreach, or for practicality.

The carriage of Internet-based video has reached the point where it has become increasingly difficult to deny its serious effects on the financial health of our protected system in Canada. Thus, when this issue comes up again before the Commission,  the criterion by which the CRTC would decide would be entirely focused inward to the broadcasting system. This was the basis of my comments back in 2009 when this issue was looked at for the second time.

I wrote then:

The television system as we have experienced it is being replaced by a variety of other platforms and media. It is being integrated into a computer-driven world with computer- driven possibilities. All this is as completely obvious to those who favour extending the Act as it is to those who think that such a course of action would be folly. In any frank and private discussion of the way the world is heading, sensible people of all persuasions would be in agreement on the nature of the challenges posed by the Internet. They disagree on the effectiveness of the regulatory apparatus found in the Act to stem the tide, and they disagree on the desirability of employing government licensing to protect the Canadian broadcasting industrial policy. At its heart, the argument for applying the Act to the Internet rests in the belief that the authority of government is sufficient and effective and may be applied proportionately to other relevant policy objectives, to save the broadcasting system from the future.

If you go the any newspaper’s website, you will see video clips embedded everywhere. This wold make them “broadcasters”, and subject to licensing or exemption form licensing.

If the CRTC went ahead with the licensing parts of the Internet, it is likely that clever minds at the Commission would seek to limit the extension of the Act to entities linked to television programs as we have understood them. But there is in principle no stopping point to the extension of licensing authority over any portion of the Internet that has a Canadian identification or association of some sort. Proponents claim “it won’t hurt a bit” but what they really intend is to tax video consumption for the benefit of Canadian programming. That, however, is not the greatest danger.

Licensing means you speak by permission of the state, on conditions that the state establishes. My experience in life and government has convinced me there are people, intelligent and well motivated, who would trade our right to speak and write without state permission for ten cents’ worth of subsidy to Canadian television programming. And they would applaud themselves for their patriotism while they were at it.

I keep wondering what will happen when the newspapers of this country wake up to the doctrines expounded at the Commission. Will they lead a revolt? Or will they apply for local programming subsidies? Or both at the same time?

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