Dr. Dwayne Winseck, Professor with the School of Journalism and Communication, was invited by the Senate Transportation and Communication Committee to deliver expert testimony last week, as part of a sweeping set of reviews of the laws in Canada relevant to the communication, Internet, and media landscape.
Dr. Winseck made several critical arguments, suggesting that the Committee rethink the legislation governing common carrier services (those entities that provide wired and wireless communication services to the general public for a fee), as well audio-visual media and Internet services more broadly Dr. Winseck added that three values should animate the idea of common carriage: don’t discriminate; don’t use Internet access as a chokepoint to pursue broadcasting and other policy goals, and respect people’s privacy rights.
What follows is an abbreviated interview about his testimony and what he sees as the future of telecommunications and internet policy in Canada.
Can you please tell me a little bit about the testimony you gave?
The Senate Committee that I appeared before is reviewing the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Acts, which were last updated in 1993 and 1991, respectively. After a quarter of a century, there is a strong sense that the existing acts need to be brought up to speed in light of the rise of the Internet, the mounting power of global Internet platforms like Google and Facebook, and the stubbornly high levels of concentration and sky-high levels of vertical and diagonal integration across the telecoms-Internet and media landscape in Canada. There’s a sense that “something needs to be done” about all of these things and the policy machinery is trying to coordinate a response to these myriad of issues and challenges afoot, the response to which—once embodied in new laws—will fundamentally remake the communications and information infrastructure of the 21st Century, and all of the areas of our everyday lives, media, society and economy that depend on them.
What are some takeaways from Common Carriage and Cultural Policy for the 21st Century? Why is this issue so important?
Canada has the gold standard when it comes to net neutrality. We’re on the front edge of trends in Europe, India, Latin America and, until the Trump Administration, the US, that have basically realized that in the complex digital media universe, it is essential to separate control over Internet infrastructure from control over the audiovisual media services, apps, and people’s interactions that take place through those networks. In other words, it is necessary to ensure that Internet infrastructure owners—(e.g. Rogers, Bell, AT&T, etc.)—do not have the power to function as gatekeepers, or editors, picking and choosing who gets to use these facilities on what terms. Instead, the idea is to bias this infrastructure in favour of “speakers”—which can be people, publishers, or giant platforms—at the ends of the network, and then deal with them separately and as the situation demands. There is some debate over where to draw the lines between the “pipes” that are subject to these rules and the “platforms” like Google and Facebook that are not, but in my mind, while that debate might contemplate exotica like “dark fibre”, Content Distribution Networks (CDNs), Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), and so forth, it does not apply to “platforms”. A distinct paradigm might be needed for these “vampire squids” but we might also just be able to cherry-pick some ideas and practices from, for example, broadcasting (see below) and even banking (i.e. regulated audits, information fiduciary duties, line of business restrictions, etc.)
My second key point is that we do not have to re-invent the wheel in these matters because we have a history of net neutrality that has basically gone by another name for more than a century in Canada: common carriage. I have been advocating for strong common carriage for decades, and I continued that advocacy before the Senate. Canadian policy makers and regulators have bolstered and updated common carriage on at least three occasions in the last decade, and I urged the Senate to build on this momentum and enshrine common carriage as the crown jewel in any new legislation that is adopted. We don’t need any special “net neutrality” clause or stand-alone law.
This is critically important because while common carriage says “do not discriminate” between different speakers, apps, services or sources of audiovisual media content, and so on, the Broadcasting Act explicitly calls on broadcasters—television and radio services, regardless of how they are delivered—to do the exact opposite, i.e. to discriminate in favour of Canadian content. I think that it would be a bad idea to carry forward that idea. I’m not a big fan of the nationalistic sensibilities of both Acts either. Making the common carrier principle the centre of any new laws could open the pathways that all cultural creators, citizens, and audiovisual media makers, from television to music and beyond need to reach their audiences and that citizen-speakers, consumers and audiences need to be able to communicate freely with one another without mobile phone and Internet access companies inserting themselves midstream to shape the flow of these society-wide conversations and entertainment junkets.
What do you anticipate the government will do on this issue?
The government is likely in intelligence gathering mode and getting a bead on the political lay of the land. I expect it to wrap up this preliminary stage sometime next year and then use those insights as the basis of new legislation if it is re-elected in 2019. So, 2020 will be the key year to watch and if the world turns out the way I would like to see it we will move toward two new laws, one that hones in on making common carriage the baseline for mobile phone and Internet access network regulation and another that charts a new path for culture that is what I call “media agnostic” and less entangled with a “systems” view of the world and nationalistic sensibilities. This new “audiovisual media services law” could also bring the Internet platforms into its fold in terms of a few, targeted considerations related to citizens’ privacy, advertising limits and disclosure rules during election periods and society wide laws that limited the unlimited harvesting of people and the whole world’s data. I would also like to see some generally applicable rules across the whole landscape with respect to ownership concentration, opening up the “black box” of all service providers so that everybody and regulators can have a peak inside, and adequate funding coming directly from the general treasury to finance things that Canadians and a democracy need like good broadband, professional journalism and original cultural creativity that would otherwise not be supported in a so-called free market. Raise the subsidies for broadband internet from ~$2.25 per Canadian per year to something between, say, what the Swedes spend (about $5/year) and what each of us pays to support the CBC, i.e. $36 per year. I think there’s still a central role for the CBC and cultural policy and funding but think that we need to disentangle these things from old ideas marinated in cultural nationalism and lashed to a “systems view” of the world where the job of policy and regulation is to preserve “the Canadian communication system”. Instead, think of a plug and play model of communication and culture that is much more open across all of its core elements. Legos not systems.
This interview is condensed from a longer conversation and draws on Dr. Winseck’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Transportation and Communication, which you can watch in full here.
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