Regulating the internet: what happened?

Eighteen years ago, I wrote that the CRTC became “one of the world’s first regulators to clearly enunciate a “hands off” policy toward the Internet.”

At that time, the Commission issued a Public Notice enumerated by codes under each of its Broadcast and Telecom sides: Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 1999-84 and Telecom Public Notice CRTC 99-14, with a simple title: “New Media“. The decision makes for interesting reading.

It was a different time for internet content, 5 years before Facebook, 6 years before YouTube: “The Commission considers that the majority of services now available on the Internet consist predominantly of alphanumeric text, and, therefore, do not fall within the scope of the Broadcasting Act and are thus outside the Commission’s jurisdiction.”

At the time, the CRTC was confident about Canadian content development:

In the Commission’s view, there is no apparent shortage of Canadian content on the Internet today. Rather, market forces are providing a Canadian Internet presence that is also supported by a strong demand for Canadian product.

The Commission notes that a number of initiatives and funds have been developed in both the public and private sectors to help finance and support Canadian new media product.

For these reasons, the Commission concurs with the majority of participants that there is no reason for it to impose regulatory measures to stimulate the production and development of Canadian new media content.

As far as regulation of illegal and offensive content, at the time the CRTC wrote:

The Commission notes that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their industry associations, in conjunction with government agencies and other organizations, have made efforts to develop codes of conduct to help combat the distribution of offensive material. It considers that more could be done for example, by establishing complaint lines and industry ombudsmen and developing international cooperation with law enforcement agencies. The Commission also notes that effective content filtering computer software is being developed. Such software will assist those who wish to control access to material that they feel is inappropriate.

And the Commission was as concerned about competitive ISPs having wholesale access to high speed facilities from the phone companies and cable companies:

The Commission considers that access by competitive providers of Internet services to the facilities they require to offer services is an important concern. In a 1998 decision (Telecom Decision CRTC 98-9), the Commission decided it would approve the rates and terms under which incumbent cable and telephone companies provide higher speed access to their telecommunications facilities to ISPs. The Commission will set out its general regulatory approach to rates and terms for such cable carrier higher speed access services in the near future.

The past 5 years have seen Canada apply an increasingly heavy regulatory hand. A search for “Regulating internet” on my blog turns up a number of posts expressing concern about government intervention.

Three years ago, already faced withe a list of areas in which the CRTC had intervened, I wrote: “Are we restricting the evolution of creative business models and innovation through regulation?”

Earlier this year, I asked “Will Canadians see greener Internet pastures in the USA?”, observing Orwellian euphemisms of “openness” and “choice” to characterize greater government control. Canada’s current approach to internet regulation contrasts diametrically with our neighbours to the south. As FCC Chair Ajit Pai told The 2017 Canadian Telecom Summit:

In short, America’s approach to broadband policy will be practical, not ideological. We’ll embrace what works, and dispense with what doesn’t. That means removing barriers to innovation and investment, instead of creating new ones. That means taking targeted action to address real problems in the marketplace, instead of imposing broad preemptive regulations. And that means respecting principles of economics, physics and law, and acting with humility as we regulate one of the most dynamic marketplaces history has ever known. This vision will unleash the massive investments that the digital world demands.

Eighteen years ago, Canada was among the first regulators to set out a light-touch approach to internet regulation. What happened?

Which path will the new Commission leadership follow?

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