Regulators regulate

Regulators regulate. It is just what they do.

Consider it to be a corollary to Maslow’s Hammer: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Why does Canada’s current government seem to believe that regulation should be the primary approach for achieving its communications policy objectives? Indeed, it might help if the government could clearly state what those objectives are and how they are being measured.

A week ago, I wrote about regulating misinformation. Digging way back into the archives, I found this excerpt that appeared as well in a National Post OpEd [Regulators PDF pdf, 330KB] in 2005.

In Canada, as in most countries around the world, we have a regulator that oversees the market for telecom. But what sets the CRTC apart from regulators in nations that are also some of our most important trading partners is the Commission’s presumption that new technologies and services should be regulated. It isn’t surprising. Regulators regulate. It is just what they do.

That article (from more than 18 years ago) spoke of “major changes” in Canada’s communications industry being at hand, as phone services based on internet protocol technology began to move into the mainstream, offering more service capabilities, lower prices and a wider variety of choices for consumers. I identified potential roadblocks, “perhaps the biggest is the possibility of unnecessary regulatory intervention.”

We understand why the CRTC would want to ensure that basic consumer safeguards – including access to emergency safeguards, general protections related to privacy and service level disclosure – are guaranteed. We also recognize that this will likely entail a degree of regulation that, by necessity, should apply equally to all companies offering communications services.

But to go beyond that – to deny certain companies the freedom to offer innovative new services, new capabilities and lower prices without first receiving approval from the Commission – goes too far.

Unfortunately, empowered by recent legislation, the CRTC is extending its regulatory reach beyond the communications facilities and into the content carried over those facilities. In the old broadcast world, this was understandable. Radio waves – spectrum – is a limited resource, so there was only space for a limited number of voices to be carried over the public airwaves. No such limit exists in an internet world. Consumers have the ability to access every program offered anywhere.

That means our ears and eyeballs are no longer fixated on legacy media: newspapers, radio, television. In the case of radio and television, these are regulated by the CRTC under the Broadcasting Act. New media, whether it is streaming alternatives for TV, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime or Apple Plus or other subsciption services, or podcasts and other audio services, or short form content such as TikTok or YouTube, have typically been unregulated, subject only to the terms of service of the platforms.

There were two ways the government could have gone in order to provide regulatory parity for legacy media and new media: relax the regulations on the traditional services; or, regulate the new services. In Canada, the government has chosen to impose regulatory obligations on new media.

It is a consistent approach for Canada. As I wrote earlier this year, “Canada’s policy framework for net neutrality is among the most prescriptive and restrictive.”

Regulators regulate.

Intellectually, I understand the underlying motivation behind the approach that imposes regulation on all content providers. Unfortunately, the legislation has not benefited from meaningful committee review, with the government putting egos and partisanship ahead of genuine improvements to flawed sections of the various Online Acts. We were told that the CRTC will take care of concerns as it works through the details and regulations.

The first details emerged late in the day on the last Friday of September, setting out registration requirements in an 85-page Broadcasting Policy and Order [Regulators PDF pdf, 521KB]. While the CRTC is targeting platforms with more than $10M in Canadian revenue, there are real concerns that smaller content creators will be caught by indirect regulation – the CRTC imposing conditions on a platform, leading the platform to control hosted content produced by smaller independent creators.

Regulators regulate. I get that.

How do we avoid regulatory over-reach to avoid disincentives for Canadians to benefit from investment in content, infrastructure, and leadership in a next generation economy?

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