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New Media's 'Defining Challenge'

Job one for new CRTC chief: ensure 'net neutrality.'

Michael Geist 17 Jul

Weekly Tyee columnist Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at [email protected] or online at his blog, The original version of this story can be read here.

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Room for big and little online?

In a little-noticed speech last month at a Canadian broadcasting conference, Konrad von Finckenstein, the newly appointed chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), told the industry that new media is "the defining challenge of our time in broadcasting. There is no more important matter facing the commission, nor does any other matter have such long-term consequences."

To address the challenge, the CRTC has set in motion two initiatives that will go a long way in determining how it adapts Canadian broadcast and new media regulations to the Internet environment.

First, the New Media Project initiative will analyze whether new media should be regulated, and assess its impact on the creation and distribution of Canadian content. The initiative will also consider critical access issues including network neutrality (described by von Finckenstein as "Internet traffic prioritization") and whether access to high-speed broadband networks should be elevated to a core policy objective.

A final project report is not expected until March 2009. However, the CRTC has a second initiative that will cover some of the same terrain much sooner. In April, the commission announced plans to conduct hearings on the diversity of voices within the Canadian broadcasting environment. (Comments are due on Wednesday with formal hearings to follow in September.)

Ingrown ownership

The diversity of voices consultation comes in response to the growing consolidation of Canadian media, and seeks commentary on whether the changing corporate landscape has had a negative impact on the diversity of perspectives within the Canadian broadcasting system. The CRTC's interest in the issue arises directly from the Broadcasting Act, which includes a statutory objective that Canadian broadcasting "provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern."

Canadian media consolidation includes both horizontal integration, where the same corporation controls television, radio, and print outlets in a single market, as well as vertical integration, where a single corporation controls both the production and distribution channels for new content.

The need for an open consultation on media diversity is long overdue. The Canadian market has featured creeping consolidation in recent years, leaving four companies -- CTVglobemedia, CanWest Global, Quebecor and Cogeco -- with dominant control over the television market. (Rogers is rapidly emerging as the fifth player and Astral is a key player in specialty channels.) Four companies similarly dominate the radio market (Corus, Astral, Rogers and CTVglobemedia) and five companies lead the newspaper market (Canwest Global, Quebecor, Torstar, Power Corp., and CTVGlobemedia).

Since many of these same companies also control some of Canada's most trafficked websites, the consultation rightly asks about the impact of cross-ownership of conventional broadcast platforms and new media. Yet it fails to make the more important connection -- many of the dominant media companies play a key role in the Internet service provider market, which is also highly consolidated with the six leading Canadian ISPs (Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor and Cogeco), controlling well over 70 per cent of the market.

Blocking, fast-tracking

Many of the major media companies are likely to argue that new media, particularly the Internet, provides a strong counterbalance to consolidation in the television, radio and newspaper sectors since Internet video, podcasting and blogging deliver similar content from a diverse array of sources.

The companies fail to acknowledge, however, that the counterbalance is dependent upon Canadians' ability to access new media content without interference or prioritization, which would make some sites easier to access than others. Indeed, in a world where the same companies, such as Rogers, Quebecor and Cogeco, control both content and carriage of content, there is a real danger that the carriage side of the business may prioritize its own offerings at the expense of diverse, third-party content.

Safeguarding against this form of content discrimination requires considering structural separation of carriage and content as well as network neutrality rules that would require carriers to treat all Internet content and applications in an equal manner regardless of its source.

The CRTC has identified the need to consider network neutrality within the new media context, but the same concern must surely be addressed as a question of sustaining the diversity of Canadian voices. For the CRTC's new chair, confronting that challenge may prove to be the defining issue of his tenure.

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