The National Post
Saturday, November 28, 1998

The petty politics of New Media

by Pierre Bourque, pierre@achilles.net

In the end it always comes down to politics, even in the bold new world of the Internet. As in any political exercise, a bit of money and legislation can help grease the squeaky wheels.

That is how the future of New Media is being served at hearings conducted this month at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC). The brave and the meek are telling Canada's most predatory regulatory body why it should or shouldn't interfere. The give and take of politics hovers like a dark cloud and it feels like rain.

The Internet is impossible to regulate. The CRTC admits as much. Yet, the question as to how it can be achieved springs from commissioners' lips for each succeeding group of New Media superstars who are all too willing to prostrate themselves before this last bastion of cultural regulation. The mere fact that the hearings are under way attests to a never-say-die expectation by the CRTC that it will find a role to play.

Internet service providers, big and small, repeat their mantra that the Internet is not broadcasting from the Broadcast Act's perspective. Yet regularly they are challenged with quips about what defines programming and what will happen when full stream audio and video is available online on demand. No mention yet of Internet telephony. Surprisingly.

AOL Canada stopped in to say, Thanks but No Thanks, we don't want to play by your rules because we don't play in your sandbox. Note that despite the total lack of CRTC supervision, this oh-so-very American online monolith is Canada's greatest exporter of online Canadian content through its global reach and 14,000,000 members.

The CBC is all over the map. It claims to be the champion of Canadian online content. Yet it is obvious to anyone who visits its otherwise excellent web site that it is exclusively an in-house production. Sorry, the rabble need not apply. What bombast !

Which brings us to the smaller Canadian players within the global New Media environment. Many are they who want a fair shake from the big boys. The Canadian Association of Internet Providers, for instance, wants the CRTC to tell Bell Canada to be more fair with them. Apparently Bell is often slow on the uptake when local ISPs need additional infrastructure.

Next you have the Interactive Multimedia Arts & Technologies Association. It represents "700 multimedia practitioners, mostly small companies and individuals" and cites the need for the CRTC to "develop a supportive environment for this unique cultural industry." That spells rules and regulations to me.

And what of the cable companies and newspaper groups intent on reinventing themselves for a digital audience? Everyone has their interests to protect while promoting the merits of the Digital Grail.

Add to the mix community groups intrigued and concerned about online hate, racism, and pornography and you wind up with cross-collateralization of all that is human. The good, the bad, the prurient.

Electronic Frontier Canada, the country's top online civil liberties activist, pointed out the obvious, but rarely heard, fact that the Internet is not just an agglomeration of commercial interests scoping out the next e-commerce deal. Rather, the Net is chock-a-block with millions of ordinary Canadians, each capable of developing their own content. Canadian content, so to speak.

What surprises is how easily the CRTC seems to accept the notion that online content, Canadian or otherwise, has some kind of cultural significance. A special significance that would require government protection, encouragement, promotion, and tax-incentive funding.

Can it be that the sultry Pamela Anderson is not merely an over-exposed Canadian sex kitten, but instead is Canada's greatest online cultural offering ? She's got the numbers to prove it. And what of my 12-year-old nephew's online noodlings about his pet dog ? Shall I e-mail them to the National Archives for safe-keeping ?

It is not expected that the CRTC will be able to heel, muzzle, or sedate the Internet. What's at stake is how much government largesse can be leveraged in exchange for minimal government monitoring. There is a real risk that the CRTC will wiggle its way into some form of jurisdiction over New Media. It depends how greedy the participants get. It's the old carrot and stick trick. And that's where the politics of New Media will play.

-- Pierre Bourque is the editor of Bourque Newswatch, www.bourque.com

Copyright © 1998 by The National Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.