The National Post
Tuesday, May 18, 1999
page C7

Forget new media, let's liberate the old

by Terence Corcoran

It took the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission several pages of syllogistic reconstruction yesterday to get to a working definition of "new media". Once it got there, there wasn't much left to the imagination. Anything that moves on the Internet is new media -- words, numbers, pictures, audio, video, money. Several more pages were consumed working up definitions and a conclusion as to whether audio and video sent over the Internet are also "broadcasting" under federal law. They are, it said. But even then, the commission, looking into the reality of its own irrelevance, decided not throw itself in front of a moving train.

The Internet, conceded the CRTC, promises to be a bonanza for Canadians. The commission said it is confident "that the industry is moving in a direction that will result in a strong Canadian new media industry and a strong Canadian presence on the Internet". Thus, via the miracle of no regulation, the CRTC may end up doing more to enhance Canadian culture than it has accomplished over the past three decades of protection, ownership rules, and content restrictions.

This is good news. It's amazing how strong a motivator self-preservation can be. The commission took one look at the chaos it would have unleashed, on the market, but mostly on itself, had it attempted to set up a regulatory regime for new media, complete with Canadian content requirements and licensing systems. Since every owner of a computer essentially has the capacity to set up an Internet site, the CRTC would have ended up licensing much of the population, and the RCMP would have had to expand staff exponentially in order to have enough troops on hand to shut down illegal sites.

But in this decision the CRTC has also revealed the senselessness of its existence as a media regulator. What it demonstrated, above all, is that there is no such thing as "new media". Here's the CRTC definition: "New media can be described as encompassing, singly or in combination, and whether interactive or not, services and products that make use of video, audio, graphics, and alphanumeric text; and involving, along with other, more traditional means of distribution, digital delivery over networks interconnected on a local or global scale."

The new media, in other words, are identical to the old media. Words, letters, information, pictures, sound, video. Nothing new there. The only difference is the delivery mechanism, the Internet. The same services or information can be delivered over cable, broadcast waves, mail, even newspapers. If identifying the new media is just an excuse for not regulating the Internet, then there's no reason to continue regulating the old media.

In an era of e-mail and instant communication, Ottawa sits on one of the oldest media around, Canada Post. The great mail monopoly took in $5-billion in revenue last year, but earned a paltry $36-million. The post office recently increased its ownership of Purolator, giving it almost 100% control over more than 50% of the Canadian courier market. And like postal services all over the world, Canada Post is looking to expand its markets and services, using its regulated monopoly status as a springboard. If there's an old media worthy of being treated as a new media, it is Canada Post.

In radio and television broadcasting, the CRTC's continuing grip on the industry has been without logical foundation for decades. The commission's own words in yesterday's decision undermine its entire reason for existence. "Due to the nature of the networks that comprise the Internet, spectrum scarcity is not an issue."

If there's no scarcity, no regulation is required of radio and television broadcasters. They were initially subjected to control because of an alleged shortage of broadcast spectrum. With the arrival of satellites and digital technology, and now the Internet, broadcast spectrum is in huge surplus. In fact, it always has been, the scarcity having been largely created by regulation. Whatever scarcity remains today exists because the CRTC enforces it by preventing the operation of a market. The only reason for continued regulation of old media broadcasters is to preserve the flow of revenues the industry collects from U.S. programming.

Over time, all this will crumble too. If the Internet can generate so much Canadian activity, then one wonders how much new activity could be released by deregulation in other sectors. The Internet is fashionable and high-tech, but Ottawa and the CRTC still have vast empires of old media under control. The new media are free. Now let's move on to liberate the old.

Copyright © 1999 by The National Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.