Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, took place this past Friday evening and Saturday. It is a solemn day of fasting and reflection, asking forgiveness for transgressions over the past year and an opportunity to seek spiritual guidance for doing better in the coming year.
Afflicting ourselves, denying ourselves food, water and other forms of pleasure helps focus ourselves on the importance of the day. The holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, begins this Wednesday and among its observances is reading King Solomon’s Book of Ecclesiastes, the inspiration for Pete Seeger’s song: “Turn, Turn, Turn“. At its core, I see a message of balance in the lyrics: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
In an era of being online all the time, with our societal norm of immediate gratification, the pause for such times with family provides me with a chance to reset some semblance of balance in my life.
I sometimes think that such days would be helpful for the secular community. Pausing and reflecting seriously about issues that can have a lasting impact.
Balance is often missing from public discussion about the CRTC. It is too easy to take cheap shots about our institutions. It is much tougher to apply a critical eye, to explore issues with more than a superficial swipe of the hands. As I have written before, we need to explore the digital economy with the thinking of a chess master, looking beyond the next move.
Almost ironically, on Yom Kippur, I had an opportunity to read an article by Simon Houpt in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, that brought some critical intelligence and balance to otherwise imbalanced reporting.
Much of media coverage of Netflix’ showdown with the CRTC has been largely one-sided, unfair and even bizarrely self-perpetuating.
The CBC was perhaps the biggest offender, leading its online coverage with a headline saying “Netflix refuses CRTC demand to hand over subscriber data”. As was apparent from comments on the story, many casual readers thought the CRTC was trying to get personal information about Netflix subscribers (such as the shows you watch), rather than the actual CRTC request: how many customers does Netflix have in Canada and how much is Netflix investing in Canadian programming.
CBC then had the audacity to have a follow-up story, saying “CBC News readers side with Netflix in spat with CRTC”. Given the misinformation in the initial CBC story, it wasn’t surprising that CBC readers sided with Netflix. The CBC coverage of this broadcast hearing was not one of the prouder moments for our national broadcaster.
Whatever you think of the idea of taxing or otherwise regulating Netflix, Google or other internet broadcasters, it’s important to distinguish the act of regulating from the act of information gathering. As a quasi-judicial body, the CRTC is required to base its decisions on evidence gathered during public proceedings, not simply on the basis of which party put on the best dramatic performance.
CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais had every right to ask for the information to help the CRTC understand the state of the streaming video market. That Netflix changed its position on providing the information from “we are concerned about our confidential information” to “you have no authority over us” undermines its position as a new media leader helping to shape digital policy in Canada. Yet nowhere did we see this distinction raised in media.
Could Netflix have offered proxies for the information sought to satisfy their confidentiality needs? For example, analysts have estimated that Netflix is in about 25% of Canadian households. Netflix might have responded that it is comfortable with those estimates, providing helpful guidance to the CRTC while preserving its corporate secrets.
Can you imagine the outrage if a Canadian company showed up in Washington and treated any American regulator with the same approach?
There were a few bright spots, to be sure, including Terry Pedwell’s Canadian Press story on the inappropriate political interference by the Prime Minister’s Office in the Let’s Talk TV hearings, which was unfortunately picked up by only a few regional media outlets.
… by inappropriately interfering in the CRTC hearings, the Harper Conservatives may have already rendered the regulator toothless, said Opposition heritage critic Pierre Nantel. “It is simply scandalous,” Nantel said.
Simon Houpt’s excellent piece in The Globe and Mail, appropriately published on Yom Kippur, “It’s time to be honest: Netflix is parasitic”, forcefully expressed what I can only hope others in the media have at least considered:
But please, at least be honest with yourself and recognize that Netflix … is a parasitic enterprise …. At least, we believe that’s the case; we don’t know, because Netflix won’t share any of its data with the CRTC, since it says it is worried the information won’t be kept confidential. (This is a company whose business depends on millions of people trusting it to keep their credit-card data safe …)
The article continues:
… we have a Prime Minister who has now sided with an economically and culturally parasitic foreign entity, one that doesn’t even remit taxes in this country, over one of his own government agencies.
Take the time to read the complete article, not just the headline. It is an important message to balance against other perspectives that have dominated our airwaves. To everything, there is a season.
The CRTC and its Chair, JP Blais deserved fairness and balance from our government and the Prime Minister’s Office. Canadians deserve better analysis and reporting from our news media.