Wired News
Tuesday, November 24, 1998

AOL to Canada: Hands off the Net

Lawyers for the online service tell the broadcast regulator there is no need to introduce regulations to preserve Canadian content in the digital age.

by Pierre Bourque, pierre@achilles.net

HULL, Quebec -- The managing director of AOL Canada told Canadian government officials on Tuesday that they had no business regulating Internet content in this country.

"The nascent interactive new-media market is vibrant, competitive, and growing rapidly in an environment subject to free-market forces and not intervention by government and regulators", said Stephen Bartkiw.

Bartkiw spoke on behalf of the more than 60 Canadian content providers that funnel content to AOL Canada's 100,000 members. He addressed his comments to representatives of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission.

The CRTC is Canada's federal department responsible for regulating the broadcast and telecom industries. Under current law, up to 60 percent of music or television broadcast must be created by Canadians. The commission is holding hearings to decide whether or not similar quotas will be put in place for the Net.

In questions Tuesday, some CRTC commissioners baited Bartkiw and other AOL executives on issues including whether or not AOL content constitutes "programming." If so, it could fall within the commission's mandate to protect Canadian content in media.

AOL said that the old rules do not apply to a new world.

"Packet switching is fundamentally different from broadcasting", argued AOL counsel Greg Kane in response to questions from CRTC vice chairman David Colville.

"The notion that broadcasting is technologically neutral does not automatically give the CRTC the right to regulate something that didn't exist when parliament created it", Kane said.

"Point taken", replied Colville.

AOL executives told the commissioners that the company's use of content "channels" cannot be equated with radio stations and TV channels.

"Reception technology is still in its infancy, [and] programming is interactive, largely one-to-one rather than one-to-many, said Bartkiw. "To try to apply old rules to a new medium will not serve users."

Commissioners suggested that AOL's "mostly alphanumeric" content, once coupled with audio samples and video images, suggested that the service should comply with some version of the country's content regulations. On Monday, commissioners heard the head of specialty cable channel The Weather Network, one of AOL's own content providers, relate his difficulties in gaining a prominent spot on the AOL Canada welcome page.

Pierre Morrissette, president and CEO of Pelmorex, the firm that runs the network, suggested, "The CRTC should assert its jurisdiction over content packagers on the Internet."

Jim Carroll, co-author of the Canadian Internet Handbook ridiculed the notion that weather data was inherently Canadian.

"I can get 14 different weather reports from US services on the Web that cover Toronto and most other areas of Canada", he said. "Why should Canadians have to pay a tax to put money in your pocket to provide us with 'distinctively Canadian' weather content?"

"It's the same darn weather. Is this supposed to somehow make me a better Canadian?"

Small Canadian content providers are telling the CRTC that they need tax incentives and funding mechanisms so they can compete globally.

The commissioners asked whether AOL Canada's relationship with MuchMusic, Canada's answer to MTV, constituted a new form of broadcasting. AOL officials replied that online content retrieval by the average Internet user is not a form of broadcasting as it is defined under Canadian law.

Bartkiw argued forcefully that new media is a "paradigm shift from broadcasting" and that it cannot be measured with existing rules.

But AOL Canada's message may be drowned out by others at the hearings, which run for another 10 days. Broadcasters are expected to argue that a fair and level playing field is warranted for all media participants.

It should also be remembered that though the commission operates at arm's length from political interference, it cannot be immune from either public opinion and the growing interest in new media by elected legislators. Canada's official opposition, the Reform Party of Canada, calls for the outright abolition of the commission.

"The CRTC new-media strategy seems to be an attempt by the commission to justify its continued existence and to find new ways to spend money in an area of economic activity that requires no help whatsoever", said Devin Baines, webmaster for Reform party leader Preston Manning.

"Cultural engineering continues, even in the new digital arena."

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Copyright © 1998 by Wired Digital Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.