Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, May 16, 1999

CRTC's study of new media made waves from the start

by Jennifer Ditchburn

OTTAWA (CP) -- If there's one place the Canadian Internet industry likes to avoid, it's the headquarters of the national broadcast regulator.

Technology companies, Net service providers, on-line merchants, Web site developers and the like bristle when policymakers get too close to their turf.

So the announcement last June that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) would conduct hearings on its role in new media didn't go over well.

Monday, after a year of consultations and deliberations, the commission will reveal whether or not it plans to regulate the cybersector.

"I think it can be very significant if they went all the way and said the Broadcasting Act and Canadian content rules apply; it would be devastating", said Dave Patterson, executive director of the Canadian Advanced Technology Association.

"There would be sharp decline in the growth of the Internet in Canada. A click of the mouse can move the Internet to another place."

The CRTC’s hearings on new media brought together perhaps the most unusual mix of organizations and individuals in its history - from broadcasters and telecom companies to free-speech advocates and big Internet service providers.

An on-line forum was created to discuss the hearings and attracted hundreds of Canadians.

Just coming to a definition of new media was a major challenge since it incorporates electronic commerce, audio, video, publishing, telecommunications and a convergence of all these aspects.

The commission wanted the answers to three basic questions:

The vast majority of interveners told the commission it should avoid regulating the relatively new Internet industry for fear the CRTC will cramp its growth.

David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, argues that the Internet should be treated like books and magazines.

Anybody, whether a big company or a 13-year-old, could get on-line and put out information, he said, and with regulations, that could end.

"We got where we are today without the CRTC being involved at all", said Jones.

"One could argue that the lack of government meddling is what allowed the Internet to flourish. Now is not the right time for the commission to intervene."

Still, some fear the Internet, left to develop on its own, could have negative repercussions.

Broadcasters in particular can see their market share eroding once technology allows broadcast quality television from anywhere in the world over the Internet.

Jim Macdonald, president of WIC Television Ltd., said the CRTC should ensure traditional broadcasters aren’t placed at a competitive disadvantage.

"Let's make sure that the regulator understands that we're dealing with open borders and we need to compete on a fair and equitable basis", Macdonald said.

Content was a major issue of the CRTC's hearings.

While broadcasters want the commission to start to relax Canadian content guidelines, content producers would like to see some incentives so the Internet doesn't become an overwhelmingly American landscape.

The Specialty and Premium Television Association suggested that Canadian Internet service providers be required to provide equal access to all Canadian Web sites, not just the ones in which they have a financial interest.

The Independent Film and Video Alliance suggested a levy be placed on service providers to support the creation of Canadian content.

Copyright © 1999 by The Canadian Press. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.