I recently found my way into a media and technology industry conference where I "accidentally" bumped into the chair of the CRTC, Konrad von Finckenstein. Surprisingly our conversation couldn't have been more different from the experiences I've had at CRTC hearings, where commissioners bear down on you with condescending glares, like feudal lords. Our interaction conveyed to me that this man knows what the CRTC is: a politically contested space.
Many media commentators, myself included, have been critical of the CRTC over the years. At times they seem to see themselves as a mediator between industries rather than a public watchdog. When they do make a decision that incorporates the public interest they often do so with a conflicted and weak-willed approach.
If the CRTC's weak nod to the public interest doesn't inspire confidence in the institution, two very recent rulings should. On June 30 the CRTC extended its Traffic Management (Net Neutrality) rules to mobile wireless data services. This ruling was made in response to requests by OpenMedia.ca through its partner The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), two public interest organizations. This is a huge win. As Canadians increasingly connect to the internet using mobile devices, it's impossible to overstate the importance of this ruling for ensuring we have access to the open Internet.
Secondly, on June 15, media giant Quebecor announced the launch of a 24-hour right-wing news channel modeled after the Fox News network in the US. Teneycke is now leading this Canadian right-wing news network, to be called Sun TV. Rather than accepting the need to compete on a level playing field like Al Jazeera English and other broadcasters do, Quebecor applied to the CRTC for a coveted Category 1 License, meaning cable operators across Canada would be forced to carry this Fox-style channel, which would amount to a subsidy of millions, maybe even tens of millions, of dollars. Despite the involvement of a key Conservative operative, and the political pressure that inevitably comes with that, it appears the CRTC is listening to the public interest community. In July the CRTC sent a letter to Quebecor denying them Category 1 carriage until at least October 2011.
When I bumped into another not so friendly CRTC commissioner recently he quipped that the CRTC makes its rulings and the government overrules them if they don't like them. "That's how it works," he said. This was an interesting and unsought admission from what is supposed to be an independent regulatory commissioner, that he accepts the government's ability to undercut the authority of the expert body that is intended to regulate our media.
The CRTC recognizes its own limitations within a highly contested space, and feels political pressure from the Conservative government, which is very cozy with big media and big telecom companies. These companies also bombard the CRTC with their own arguments and narratives. Commissioners attend their conferences, the firms have a small army of lobbyists and indeed there is a revolving door between the CRTC and industry that means many decision-makers come from the industry they are supposed to regulate.
But recent rulings suggest that the CRTC can do the right thing when faced with public pressure. If the public is engaged en masse, the CRTC can be transformed into the public institution it is supposed to be. V
Steve Anderson is the national coordinator of OpenMedia.ca.