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Archive for April, 2011

Playing the Politics and Press Game: Cdn Election Newspaper Endorsements Update

Okay, I’ve scoured the webpages of all of the major daily newspapers in Canada again this morning to see who has endorsed who.

Remember, the key elements in this little exercise that I embarked on in a post last night are five political parties, nine press groups with 61 daily newspapers under their belts and about 95 percent of the market as their own. The basic question: how well does ‘editorial opinion’ match up with ‘popular opinion’.

As of yesterday, recall, there were just four endorsements in.  One from the Globe & Mail and three from different papers belonging to Post Media — the reincarnated group that now owns the newspapers that used to belong to the defunct and bankrupt Canwest previously owned by the Asper family.  All four of those editorials backed their man Harper for PM.

And today?  The number of endorsements has risen considerably to twelve when counting the editorial endorsements for PM; 15 if we count three that urge citizens to “Just Vote”, but which I think are probably just place-holders until these papers editors’ show their hand.

Here’s an updated simplified table showing the nine major newspaper ownership groups and where they’ve cast their favour.

Parent Group & Titles Mrkt. Share

($ 2009)

Dailies / Group CPC Lib. NDP Bloc Just Vote
Post Media 27% 12 8
Sun Media 25.9 18 2 2
Toronto Star 13.9 1 1
Globe & Mail 7.2 1 1
Power Corp/ Gesca 9.8 7
Transcontl. Media 3.2 11
Glacial 2.9 6
Halifax Herald 2.2 1
1
Brunswick News 2.1 4
9 Groups Total Tally  61 Titles 94.2% Market Share 11 1 3

A couple of things stand out. First, the stable of Post Media papers from the Calgary Herald to the The Montreal Gazette appear to be taking their orders from “on high”. All are lining up solidly behind the Conservatives/Harper.

Just like the Aspers before them, the bully-pulpit of the editorial page for the new owners is dedicated to backing Conservatives. If (when?) the Windsor Star in my home town falls into line, you’ll get a feel for how impervious ‘editorial opinion’ is to the opinions of the people on the street.

Second, if we just count the 12 endorsements in so far from four different newspaper ownership groups, 11 are for the Conservatives.  That is, 92 percent of editorial opinion favours one man for PM: Harper. If Canada were a ‘banana republic’, this would look suspiciously like acclamation for the despot holding office, you know, in one of those faux elections.

Remember, here was the breakdown for the federal elections in 2008: CPC 37.6%; Liberals 26.2%; NDP 18.2%; Bloc 10%; Green 6.8%.  As of yesterday, pollster Ekos had public opinion is lining up this way : CPC 34.5; NDP 29.7; Liberals 20%; Green 6.9%; Bloc 6.3%.

Do you see the problem?

The Peladeau Sun Media Empire has yet to run things through its slate of eighteen papers, but in one where it did endorse a candidate today, The London Free Press, it backed, ahem: Stephen Harper. We can wait to see the rest fall into line over the next day or two, but I won’t be holding my breath for much different results.

Besides, why rush to plunk down your editorial chips when you can just smear surging candidates?  I won’t shil for QMI in any way shape or form, so you can go look for yourself what that means.

If you’re looking for the detailed breakdown, paper-by-paper of where things now stand, you can look at my super-duper updated Editorial endorsements list.

Politics and the Press: Counting Endorsements by Cdn. Press Group, 2011 Election

Well, you know what would be a lot of fun?  Counting up the number of endorsements each newspaper in Canada gives to each of the Prime Ministerial candidates.

There are roughly 100 daily newspapers in Canada. So far, four newspapers have registered their endorsements for Prime Minister: the Globe and Mail,  National PostTimes Colonist and the The Province. All have endorsed Harper.

On the one hand, one could say that there’s 96 papers to go. That would be a mistake.

The Globe and Mail and National Post are national papers and agenda setters. Besides, the last three on the above list all belong to one group of newspapers: PostMedia, the reincarnated Canwest.

Post Media still has ten papers to go across the country.  Will they all lean the same way, one city after another?

And how about Quebecor’s Sun Media, with its eighteen newspapers scattered in major and minor cities across Canadas, to say nothing of its much vaster holdings across the media?  Will they step on the scales in the same way, further proof that rather than a watchdog, Peladeau’s Quebecor Media (QMI) is the populist mouthpiece of Harper and Gang?

I think building such a list of all the newspapers in the country might be a lot of fun.  We can even work this stuff out together.

Here’s a handy list of all the major newspaper ownership groups and all sixty-one of the daily titles held under their respective umbrellas, most with links direct to each title. Pick your newspaper from the list, watch for the endorsement, then send it to me: presto, a national snapshot of whether ‘editorial opinion’ in the press corresponds at all to ‘public opinion’ on the streets. No prizes, no gimmicks, just a ‘crowd-sourced’ creation.

For the time being, I’ve created a simplified list below. It brings us up to date as of the end of April 29th and identifies the 9 major newspaper ownership groups in Canada that account for 61 daily newspaper titles just mentioned and roughly 95 percent of newspaper industry revenues.

As individual papers within these groups announce their endorsements over the next 24 hours or so, I will tally up the results. Again, it’ll really help if some people look at the ‘handy list’ above and send in a link to your local daily newspaper when it takes a stand. In the meantime, here’s how things stand:

Parent Group & Titles Mrkt. Share($ 2009) Dailies / Group CPC Lib. NDP Bloc Green
Post Media (former Canwest) 27% 12 3
Sun Media (QMI) 25.9 18
Toronto Star 13.9 1
Globe & Mail 7.2 1 1
Power Corp/ Gesca 9.8 7
TranscontinentalMedia 3.2 11
Halifax Herald 2.2 1
Brunswick News 2.1 4
9 Groups Total Tally  61 Titles 94.2% Market Share 4

Harper’s standing at a perfect four for four.

My point is not to fetishize numbers and charts but rather to set up a question, and it is this:

If, in a representative democracy, a free press is suppose to reflect a plurality of a society’s voices and political forces, shouldn’t we hope that the range of editorial opinion in the press comes at least somewhat close to matching up with public opinion?

If so, the fact that Harper is currently standing four for four suggests that we’re off to a bad start.

Voting’s a pretty good proxy for popular opinion, so let’s set out some standards using that measure to help us assess the relationship between ‘editorial opinion’ and ‘popular opinion’. When Canadians went to the polls for federal elections in 2008, they voted as follows: CPC 37.6%; Liberals 26.2%; NDP 18.2%; Bloc 10%; Green 6.8%.  National turn out was 58.6%

Now, three days before the 2011 election, the pollster Ekos says that public opinion is lining up this way : CPC 34.5; NDP 29.7; Liberals 20%; Green 6.9%; Bloc 6.3%. Quite significantly different, actually, on close inspection. Advance polls were up by a third over the last election. People are in, even if somewhat begrudgingly.

Harper’s Conservatives have stayed remarkably steady since the last election and Ekos polling of the last few days. One third of the voters dig Harper. Four seasoned editorialists of four who have spoken, however, are ready to hand him the reigns of power despite their own acknowledged lengthy and, truth be told, tawdry list of abuses.

Anyway, the point is not to make the case against Harper but rather to suggest that there’s room for dispute and it would be nice to see such divisions reflected in the range of editorial sentiment available. So far, it has not.

Moreover, the endorsements that are in are not just any endorsement, but from two of the major national agenda-setting papers — The Globe & Mail and the National Post (Post Media).

Only the Toronto Star, so far, has staked out an “anything but Harper” editorial on the 28th. It will announce its ultimate verdict tomorrow.  Liberal, Layton or Coalition?

Now, to be sure, editorial opinion is not the opinion of the press as a whole. Nonetheless, it is one critically important indicator.

It is also an important questions about the free press and journalism in this country to know whether or not editors have to tow their respective owners’ line. Will each pen something ‘unique’ for the city they serve or broadly endorse the same candidate for PM right across the chain of a dozen (PostMedia) to a dozen-and-a-half newspapers (QMI) in one city after another across the country?

Of course, there is more diversity across the rank and file journos that fill out the rest of the pages of the press, but it would be nice to know that there’s some diversity in the editorial ranks, and a least a slice of clear blue sky between editors and the 9 entities that own the newspapers that they have been appointed to run.

Three Days ’til Canadian Election; Three Traditional Media Things to Ponder

Dateline: April, 28th, 2011. Ottawa.

I’m not usually crazy about jumping in and making judgements about media content, but three things in the context of the role of the press in the Canadian election today screamed out for some kind of observation and comment:

(1)  the Globe & Mail’s terrible editorial endorsement of Harper for the next acceptable PM;

(2) Conservative poster-boy, Andrew Coyne’s conversion to Liberalism in Maclean’s magazine.

(3) Sun TV/Quebecor media baron, Karl Pierre Peledeau’s, defense of bad journalism at his new SunTV — or the so-called Fox News North — as somehow being proof that the Quebecor Media Group that he presides over is not the mouthpiece of the Harper Government, despite the fact that

(a) Harper’s recent spin-doctor, Kory Teneycke is directing the operations of the newly relaunched Sun TV (aka Fox News North) and

(b) former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sits on its board of directors.

In a ‘drive-by smear campaign’ on Michael Ignatieff gone bad, Peladeau’s Sun Media empire got caught with its fingers in the Harper Admin’s pockets this week. It’s crime? Publishing photos supplied by someone close to Harper’s Conservatives purporting to show Ignatieff at briefing sessions with military minions of the Bush Administration during events leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Heads have rolled; Peledeau has tried to use this as an excuse to distract attention from the fact that the Quebecor Media Empire is a populist tool of the Harper Conservatives. The problem, however, is that while the photos were false, the story behind is basically true.

Michael Ignatieff was close to the Bush and Blair administrations. However, so caught up in contortions with its obvious political entanglements with the ruling political party, neither Peledau nor anyone else at QMG seems to know that, in its essential features, the story about Michael Ignatieff that the faked photo purports to tell was actually right.

As one of the main architects of the R2P (Right to Protect) Doctrine after the ravages of Rwanda and Bosnia, Ignatieff was an intellectual star at the early days of the 21st century with his new and improved version of ‘just war': R2P, or humanitarian intervention.  He was listened to in high places.

In a famous essay that he wrote in the New York Times Magazine, in January 2003 — before the U.S. invaded Iraq — Ignatieff endorsed the war not only according to the standards of the ancient ‘just war’ doctrine, but by a new and improved ‘call of duty': humanitarian intervention. 

The essay thrust him into the spotlight in ‘international circles’. He was a former BBC presenter now kicked into the limelight with big ideas that he could very ably defend from his perch at Harvard.

Ignatieff argued strenuously why the Bush II Admin was right to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He called it Humanitarian Intervention, and so did the Bush and Blair administrations.

Turn-coat leftists like Christopher Hitchens espoused the ideas as well.  Rwanda and the former Yugoslovia made the ideas seem commendable too. For conservative hard-liners, the velvety words provided excellent cover for an iron fist and dubious motives.

In 1899, Mark Twain, yes the author of Huckleberry Finn fame, told us to be wary of the likes of Ignatieff and the allures of forays into distant lands on the grounds that somehow you’d help poor ‘brown’ people out, and then leave them shortly thereafter much better off than they had, or would have been.

As Twain said, these are the noble robes of empire and militarism, and the initiatives they justify typically end in tears. They rot the institutions and moral fabric of republican democracy.

From Twain to twits, all of this is public record, and so it should be part of the Canadian national election agenda. In that sense, Sun Media, despite itself, gave us a wee glimpse of something important, then backed away, frightened of what it saw.

So yesterday, Peladeau did all that he could to back his QMI group away from the truth, caught between a Harper Government that has put military muscle behind R2P, on the one hand, and a strategy to besmirch Ignatieff, on the other. Without a moral compass, what’s a poor media mogul to do?

There is good reason to be skeptical of Michael Ignatieff, but not for the banal stuff that the vast Quebecor Media Group typically peddles.

Perhaps, then, and when cast in this light, the Globe and Mail‘s editorial endorsement of Harper as PM today was the right choice? Actually, it is a travesty of observation and reasoning.

Surveying the scene, the editors announced:

“We are nearing the end of an unremarkable and disappointing election campaign, marked by petty scandals, policy convergences and a dearth of serious debate. Canadians deserved better”.

Unremarkable? By what standards? Petty scandals? Only when you list them in the banal way the editors did.

A lack of serious debate? Isn’t that what the press, and especially national agenda setting media like the Globe & Mail and the QMG are suppose to do? Is this really an indictment of the sad state of Canadian politics, or an admission of failure on the Globe’s and the rest of the media’s part?

The campaign is remarkable for both the reasons it was called — “a disrespect for Parliament, the abuse of prorogation, the repeated attempts . . .to stanch debate and free expression, as the Globe editors list but fail to elaborate on — and for just how f*%cking exciting it’s actually been for anybody who cares to have a look. A Layton-led coalition anyone? I’m not advocating, just saying . . .

Advance polls are up 35 percent; neighbourhood by neighbourhood combat for voters, so some commentators say, is taking place, although the jury is still out on whether this is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing; young people who are taking their first ‘official’ political steps are organizing vote mobs on campuses across the country and partying like it is 1999; local debates like the one my eighteen year old daughter attended tonight that have an airy sense of political community about them; Jack Layton storming Quebec, and perhaps on to taking Manhatten, I mean Moncton?

This is not boring stuff.  The editors of the Globe & Mail are off by a mile. Perhaps we can be thankful that editorial opinion is typically so out of touch with ‘popular’, or public opinion.

While it is a ‘power without responsibility’, as James Curran states, it is the prerogative of newspaper editors to use the bully pulpit of the “free press” to espouse their views. It is fundamentally, and at a gut level, why people care about ‘who owns the media’, and whether those voices are concentrated and influential or dispersed and based on the ‘just powers’ of persuasion and ‘right thinking’.

In a network media system, there are still ‘primary’ definers of ‘reality’ and ‘public discussion’, even when distilled and filtered through the blogosphere, twitters and watercooler conversation. Watch and listen each day as the key stories cascade from the Globe and Mail, CTV, CBC, Global and TVA throughout the ‘media sphere’ and the ‘body politic’, with interjections coming spasmodically from elsewhere as well to do their part.

The ‘sluices of public life’, as one of the great thinkers on these topics, Jurgen Habermas stated not so long ago, are coursing with the criss-crossing circuits of public conversation, from ‘big media’ to small conversations. While no longer citadels amidst the great sea of the unwashed, the ‘mainstream media’ are still at the centre of public conversation, especially when it comes to major events, from elections to tsunamis and earthquakes.

And caught up in these sluices and events people sometimes changes their mind. And for the best change of heart of the day award, I select Andrew Coyne, who announced in an essay published in Macleans (think, Rogers Media) and on his own blog today that he will be voting for Ignatieff.

For those in the know, Coyne is and has been one of the poster-boys of hardline conservativism for the past 25 years. Now he tells us that he is voting for Ignatieff because he cannot, in good conscience, vote for Harper. To do so, he asserts, would be a travesty for democracy.

He argues that Ignatieff might screw up the economy marginally more than Harper would by pandering to the little slices of the political universe that he wants to buy off. However, on the more important and fundamental question of democracy, he observes that Harper and Gang have already destroyed a lot. He worries that Canadian Parliamentary-style democracy might not survive another Harper term. The danger is not worth the gambit, Coyne frets.

I’m not sure if I smell a rat, you know, something along the lines of an attempt to split the Liberal/NDP vote by inflating Ignatieff and letting Layton wilt, while Harper runs up the middle. Maybe that’s too clever by half?

I do think, however, that Coyne is right to worried about the ‘machinery of democracy’. If he’s seeing the wreckage from where he’s at, just imagine how bad it must really be.

I’m also interested in the ‘culture’, or sensibility of democracy. If we wreck not just the machinery, as Coyne worries, but also the ‘sensibility’ of democracy, we’re in deep shit.

Decision time is nigh; the right choice is ready-to-hand. Go, good fellow citizen, and vote it.

Telus Hearing Angels?

The other day I posted that Telus stands apart from the other dominant integrated telecom and media giants in Canada — Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor and Cogeco — on several grounds.

First, that while it has Usage Based Billing and bandwidth caps on the books, it has yet to implement them — although it has just announced plans to do so. If it does, it will be in the same league as the rest of the incumbents. Until then, there is still a chance that it will back down.

Second, unlike the other ‘big 5′, it is not a fully-integrated media conglomerate. It does not own broadcasting or other major ‘content’ services.

Third, it is opposed to vertical integration because companies that own the ‘medium’ and the ‘message’ lock up content in ways that are anti-competitive and against open networks. It is already encountering the difficulties that that entails in its attempts to gain programs for its IPTV, mobile tv services, etc.

Today, Telus filed documents for the upcoming CRTC hearings on vertical integration outlining that opposition. It is worthwhile to read. Here’s a link and another.

The following quote from Telus press release announcing its position gets to the thrust of its position:

“The unprecedented concentration of market power in the broadcasting sector created by the common ownership of programming services and distribution platforms requires regulatory safeguards to protect consumers . . . . The potential for abuse of market power is real and the risk to consumers is significant. Without proper regulatory safeguards consumers could soon be facing increased costs and reduced choice in their TV viewing options.” Michael Hennessy, senior vice-president Regulatory and Government Affairs at TELUS.

To be sure, unless it renounces plans for UBB, bandwidth caps and to stop throttling P2P services and OVP (online video providers), Telus is certainly nowhere being on the side of the Angels. However, it has gone part way down the right path, and in so doing, broken ranks with the others who simply see the Internet as a threat and merely an adjunct to their ‘business models’ when useful.

Angels to Telus: Don’t be Evil

A reader, Sean, sent me an email yesterday, two actually and a couple of questions. They reminded me of something, and then inspired me to read and write. Thanks Sean.

The immediate point was that Shaw Media and Telus are about to ramp up bandwidth caps and UBB — the cornerstones of the the pay-per Internet model — in western Canada. To be sure, people in Alberta and BC have already had lots of this model already.

However, while both Shaw and Telus have had ‘bandwidth caps’ and UBB on the books, they have not used them. That looks set to change.

Shaw appears to be first off the mark in wanting to kick these into action, as it told, again, those pesky investment bankers who are now hovering around companies because it is the ‘end of quarter’ reporting season of its plans. As Shaw stated, it has the market power to impose the pay-per pricing model and supposedly the consent of its users. I don’t doubt the former, but the latter claim is circumspect.

Shaw has come full circle in the past sixth months after acquiring Global TV and has begun to sing a new gospel from the top of its lungs in favour of regulating OVP (online video providers) such as Apple TV, Google, Netflix, etc..

Telus, too, has had pretty tough bandwidth caps and UBB on its books.  It’s cost per ‘extra’ GB when going over the cap is a punitive $2-5. Telus infamously shut down access over its ISP to the website “Voices of Change”, a site run by the Telecommunication Workers Union, during a strike in 2005.

It has been no angel. However, I am also reminded that amongst the ‘big six’ — Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor, Telus and Cogeco — Telus is something of an exception, or at least has a few characteristics that distinguish it from the others and put it on, as my friend Marc-Andre put it, “the side of the angels”. We should probably give credit where credit is due.

First, we must remember that in a situation where Canada stands unique, if not completely alone, in the universal coverage of ‘bandwidth caps’ and pay-per GB ‘excess usage charges’, Telus has not yet made the move to implement these measures and might yet be dissuaded. So, for what that’s worth: Telus, please don’t be evil.

Second, on some key ‘structural issues’ that go to the heart of the organization of the network media in Canada, Telus stands alone amongst the ‘big six’ for not following the path of ‘empire’ by becoming vertically-integrated with a dominant broadcaster.  This means that its voice has been absent among all of the others who have called in unison for the CRTC to regulate online video providers.

Third, Telus recently told the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage  in no uncertain terms that it opposed the Shaw-Global TV and Bell-CTV amalgmations, respectively. In sum, Telus has not embraced the shangri-la of ‘media convergence’.

That, however, does not mean that it is not in the TV business. It serves as distributor of Bell satellite TV in the west. It has its own IPTV service, mobile tv channels, and so forth. It  needs programs and ‘content’ for its IPTV service, mobile tv channels, and so forth as well, and therein lies a problem.

Telus already claims to be having a lot of difficulty getting the programming that it wants on reasonable terms. This is more grounds for its opposition to vertical integration still. For that reason, Telus will stake out a unique stance at the upcoming CRTC hearings on vertical integration in being the only major incumbent likely to argue on behalf of some form of structural separation. This is a good thing and, again, Telus is on the side of the angel

Having just been blessed by the CRTC (and Competition Bureau) over the past six months, it is hardly likely that the CRTC will do much more than tinker around the edges with vertical integration. The fact that Industry Minister Tony Clement has already voiced his view that vertical integration is the way of the future and structural separation irresponsible only reinforces the impression.

All of this reminds me that the commitments to open networks is not about paying homage to abstract principles but to a concrete trilogy of real considerations: open networks, open sources and open societies. At the present conjuncture, each is under severe pressure, but yet to be bowed.

While no angel, Telus is on the side of the good with respect to open networks and should be applauded to the extent that it is. In terms of open source, the approach helps generate ideas, examination and conversation like Sean’s email did yesterday. Several others have written lately too, so thanks, but I would also like to suggest that it is best to raise issues here. That way others can weigh in, and go off on their own, too.

These are also the things upon which an open society — the ultimate endpoint of the trilogy to begin with — depends.  There are important questions about just how far Canada has fallen from that standard.

We have corporate disclosure rules that pale alongside those in the United States. Not just the major network media conglomerates, but publicly-traded corporations in Canada generally disgorge far less information to the CRTC and Competition Bureau than their counterparts in the US are required to do by the FCC and Department of Justice.

The Harper Government has clamped down on information flows and the general tenor it has set has simultaneously fortified and calcified the historical proclivity towards information secrecy in Canada relative to other capitalist democracies. Without a full-commitment to open societies and open sources and open networks, none of these elements can flourish on their own. It is a thought worth bearing in mind, I think.

Media Regulation, Public Memory and the WayBackMachine

The WayBackMachine is a colossal public digital archive of the Internet backed by the massive resources of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress in Washington. There is nothing even close to it Canada and that is a problem because it means the many of our public records from the online world no longer reside in this country.

And so it is, for instance, that the oldest known digital copy of the CRTC’s website – dating from May 1, 1997 — can only be obtained from the WayBackMachine. Not only is this an important document because it is the earliest record of the agency’s activities online, but also because the ‘snapshot’ of the website taken on that day reveals a bold statement of principles that were supposed to guide all of the CRTC’s activities: “Communication in the Public Interest” – as had been the case for more than twenty years before that.

The last known digital record of this statement is from December 20th, 2008. A visitor to the website on that day would have still seen the words “Communication in the Public Interest” right at the top of the page.

Moreover, the fact that the phrase had risen from the bottom of the page to the top over the years might have suggested that the public interest had become even more important as time passed in light of the momentous changes that have been sweeping the media and Internet. Indeed, no matter what it did, the CRTC’s decisions would shape these developments for decades to come, and so it was wise to have a sturdy set of values close to hand as it navigated the turbulent waters ahead.

Such wishful thinking, however, would have been mistaken. Indeed, while many Canadians were celebrating holidays and ringing in the New Year, sometime between December 20th, 2008 and January 21st, 2009 when the WayBackMachine took its next snapshot of the CRTC’s website, the “public interest” had vanished. Forever.

Ever since, the CRTC has recast itself in a decidedly different mold, as its new ‘mission statement’ asserts:

“An Independent Public Authority in charge of regulating and supervising Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications”.

“Authority”, “supervising”, “regulating” – these are not words that reflect a democratic frame of mind that aims to inspire public participation in the processes that will shape the digital media landscape of the 21st Century. Instead, they are a brusque assertion of authority and part of the linguistic fortress put into place by a ‘muscular state’ under the Harper Government that seems designed more to keep the public at bay rather than to deepen its involvement in such affairs.

It is also a language that conceals major issues and values behind a thicket of techno-bureaucratic mumbo jumbo: User Based Billing, Internet Traffic Management Practices, Bandwidth Caps, etc. These are not words that aim to inspire people, but to make their eyes glaze over and to turn away. It is a language that only lawyers and lobbyists can love.

Remarkably, no record at all of this change from the “public interest” to “public authority” standard of regulation exists in Canada, either from the CRTC’s own website or other Government websites. Library and Archives Canada maintains some records for all Government websites, but its records of the CRTC’s digital online footprint are pitiful, covering two years from 2006 until 2007.

This extremely limited coverage not only applies to the CRTC, but appears to be the standard practice adopted for all Government websites in Canada. It is an incredibly weak standard in comparison to those in the U.S. and Britain, for example, where snapshots of all domains (not just government sites) of the “national Internet space” are routinely added to the national digital archives and extend much further back in time.

It is a sad indictment of the Harper Government that we, as a country, have to rely on the WayBackMachine to cobble together the bits and pieces that make up public memory as well as the evidence needed to illustrate the change from the public interest to the “public authority” model of regulation that has taken place. Indeed, it is an irony of the highest order that the effort to scrub the CRTC’s historical record of its past commitments to the “public interest” can only be discovered on a website stored and run out of Washington.

If there was ever a way to kill off the notion of “the public”, this is it. We must ask, why has the “public interest” been thrown under the bus on the Harper Government’s watch? And why should we rely on digital archives set up and operated at public expense out of Washington to fill in the gaps left by our own public institutions – the Government and the CRTC – who have failed entirely to maintain a comprehensive, digitized public historical record of our own?

The WayBackMachine and other, publicly-supported, user-driven social media projects like it usefully create, store gather, organize and disseminate a wealth of ideas, memories, records, and knowledge. Some such sites, such as Wikipedia, are stunningly successful, consistently ranking among the top ten websites in the world — except in authoritarian countries such as China and Iran.

As records are scrubbed and left to vanish, we need the WayBackMachine and others of its kind more than ever. Nonetheless, such efforts are no substitute for an official digital record of where we have been in Canada, where we are going, or of the silent switch that has taken place between the principles of the past and the lost souls who govern in this country today.

Democratic societies demand nothing less than regulators – and a government, first and foremost — who are steered by an informed appreciation of who the public is and what they want. We also need a clear digital record of that commitment.

Shouting from the Rooftops: Blog Goes Big

I don’t usually like to shout about my successes from the rooftops, but in the past week two fantastic opportunities have landed in my lap that I would like to share.

Starting today, I will be writing a regular column on the media, telecom and Internet industries in Canada for the online edition of the leading English-language, national newspaper in Canada, the Globe and Mail. The column will appear in the GlobeTech section every second Tuesday and can be found here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/digital-culture/dwayne-winseck/the-struggle-for-the-future-of-media-in-canada/article1989836/

I have also joined the Internet advocacy group, OpenMedia.ca, to be their ‘Chief Policy Blogger’. Open Media’s ‘Stop-the-Meter’ campaign has gained more than a half million signatures opposing efforts afoot to transform the Internet in Canada into a pay-per model ruled by ‘bandwidth caps’ and ‘excess usage charges’. The group has put the politics of the Internet in the public spotlight in ways that few could have imagined. Their introduction to the role that I will play with them can be found here and my first post specially for them is here.

Thank you everyone for reading and, in some cases, subscribing to my blog. It’s been a great help in bringing some very exciting and worthwhile things my way.

cheers,

Dwayne

Categories: Internet

The Great Struggle for the Soul of the Internet and Network Media in Canada (Part 1)

A strange confluence of forces has just made the push to have Netflix and other over-the-top video distributors (OVDs) such as Amazon, Apple and Google regulated by the rules of the Broadcasting Act a whole lot stronger.

Events kicked into high gear this week when Astral Media renewed calls for the CRTC to regulate OVDs just like any other broadcaster. Bell, Rogers and Shaw quickly endorsed the call.

Astral, Bell and other incumbents are coming under increased scrutiny from investment bankers worried that OVDs could wreck their bottom line and this seems to have increased their resolve to thwart would be rivals. Moody’s – the investment ratings agency – also recently raised such concerns, while casting doubt on the dominant integrated media companies’ — Bell CTV, Shaw Global (Corus), Rogers City TV and Quebecor Media – decisions to acquire ever bigger stakes in the television business.

When investment bankers worry, CEOs tremble and Netflix as well as the open Internet generally could end up paying the price.

The Canadian Media Production Association‘s recent appeal to the CRTC to regulate Netflix under the Broadcasting Act added to the full court push, as did the Supreme Court‘s decision last month to hear a case from various groups representing media workers who want ISPs as well as Netflix, Apple, Google, and so on to be regulated like broadcasters.

Lastly, a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage report published last month and the CRTC’s upcoming reviews of its unpopular wholesale UBB decision and vertical integration have also brought the issues to a head.

These issues are not new. In fact, in its famous “new media” decision in 1999, the CRTC categorically asserted its authority to regulate broadcasting services delivered over the Internet, but decided to stand on the sidelines while such services were in their infancy.

The vertically-integrated, dominant telecom, cable and internet service providers love the approach because it has given them a green light to develop new markets while letting them off the hook with respect to issues about vertical integration, anti-competitive behavior, Cancon requirements and funding commitments in the emerging digital media universe.

The CRTC’s decision to stand on the sidelines has no doubt played well to the ‘hands-off-the-Internet’ crowd, as well. The truth is, however, that this has only postponed the day of reckoning.

That day of reckoning has been moving ever closer since broadcasters finally made a concerted effort to launch substantial video portals in 2007/2008 (e.g., CBC.ca, CTV.ca, GlobalTV.com), while offering some programs through Apple iTunes and YouTube. Simultaneously, they have  fought tooth and nail to defend their existing markets and expand into new ones, while using a well-stocked arsenal of measures to block rival OVDs such as Netflix. Six such tactics stand out:

First, bandwidth throttling was used by Bell in 2008 to cripple the CBC’s attempt to use BitTorrent to distribute an episode of Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, while today Rogers’ throttling of P2P applications causes no end of frustration for those who play World of Warcraft online.

Second, ‘bandwidth caps’ and Usage-Based Billing are being used by all of the major ISPs to deter online video use. Netflix has deliberately degraded the quality of its service to help subscribers avoid these punitive and restrictive measures as a result.

Third, the incumbents do not apply the same measures to their own services. Bell’s chief regulatory officer, Mirko Bibic, recently provided a great example of the tortured logic used to justify such treatment when he argued that, despite using the same network facilities, Bell’s OVD service is not a ‘true’ Internet-based service, while Netflix is.

Fourth, the incumbent telecom and cable companies’ refusal to interconnect their systems with others has blocked large OVDs and Internet companies such as Amazon, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, and Netflix from bringing their ‘content distribution networks’ as close to users as possible.

Fifth, Canada’s integrated multimedia conglomerates have used a combination of program rights, geo-gating and digital rights management (DRM) technologies and a smattering of deals with Apple and Youtube to shore up their control over access to our ‘national media market’. The Rogers, Bells, Shaws, Quebecors, and so on of this country do not like the prospect of having to compete for each and every new digital market with newcomers one bit; nor do cable providers in the United States.

As a recent New York Time’s article observes, Time Warner and Cablevision are locked in battle with Viacom (MTV, VH1, etc.) and Scripps Howard (HGTV, Food Network, etc.), with the cable companies arguing that the rights they have acquired to deliver channels to audiences’ tv sets also lets them beam those same channels over the Internet to iPads and iPhones. Viacom and Scripps Howard vehemently disagree.

In the incumbents’ “perfect world”, they would simply fold the OVD market into the suite of rights they acquire for traditional television markets without having to compete with Netflix at all. If they had it their way, the Internet would just be bolted on to the side of their lucrative television business.

Netflix strengthens the hands of content creators and rights holders on both sides of the border relative to traditional broadcasters. In Canada, this battle over the essential resources of the media economy — networks, money and copyrights — are concealed by a fog of sanctimonious rhetoric about cultural policy led by vested interests.

Seen from the broadcaster’s point of view, Netflix’s recent acquisition of new drama series and its deal with Paramount Studios for online video distribution are just further evidence that the company is steadily encroaching on their turf — one more reason why it should be quickly brought to heel. Even if we thought for a moment that regulating Neflix and OVDs was a good idea, what should we do as Hollywood experiments with using Facebook as a new ‘window’ for blockbusters such as The Dark Knight, Philosopher’s Stone, Yogi Bear, and Chamber of Secrets, among others?

Do we regulate Facebook as a broadcaster too?  I’m all for attending to that company’s privacy issues and other mattters, but Facebook and broadcasting? Obviously, there is no shortage of slippery slopes and pitfalls along the incumbents’ garden path.

The sixth defensive weapon in the incumbent’s bid to hobble new rivals is their coordinated push for government regulation. Perhaps the award for sharpest U-turn on these issues goes to Shaw after it acquired Global TV in the fall of 2010.

After a decade of opposition to the CRTC in general and to the regulation of the Internet specifically, Shaw President Peter Bissonnette laid out the new gospel in front of the Canadian Heritage Committee referred to earlier: “If there’s one message we want to leave with you . . . it is that over-the-top competitors have a free ride. They’re aggregators of broadcasting. They provide broadcasting services in Canada.” They should be regulated like broadcasters.

For anybody still under the illusion that the Internet is unregulable, Shaw and others point to extensive regulatory tools that they’d like to see pressed into service: e.g. ISP levies; extending Section 19 Income Tax Act Exemptions so that adverting on Canadian Internet sites can be written off just as it is for Canadian-owned newspapers, magazines and broadcasters; Canadian Media Fund contributions; Cancon Quotas, etc.

Acceding to the full sweep of this agenda would not just wreck Netflix’s ‘business model’, it would destroy the future of the Internet. To stem the tide, we need to understand just how wildly out of synch the ‘sky-is-falling’ rhetoric is with the fact that the television industry is more lucrative then ever. We also might wonder if Netflix, Apple, Google, Amazon, et. al. might agree to adding some water to their wine in return for a quick stop being put to the discriminatory practices that now hobble their activities in Canada?

No ABC in 1st 2011 Canadian Election Debates

No Australian Broadband for Canada, or much to do with the Internet, media, telecoms and copyright issues at all in tonight’s federal election debate.

Before I go any further, though, let me confess that I did not watch all of the federal election debate tonight. I’m sorry, I had other things to do. But I did catch about a half-hour of the debates on tv, another 10 minutes on radio while in the car, and another 15 minutes of video with no sound while at the gym. I may have missed something. Zygmunt Bauman calls it the ‘liquid life’ — that is, cobbling things together to make up your life on the fly.

But, I think I caught the gist of things and that is that none of the leaders really had much to say on media and Internet issues. Nothing about copyright or the uproar over Usage-Based Billing. In other words, none of the ABCs of ‘digital media policy’ merited much attention.

To be sure, I didn’t expect broadband Internet, media, copyright and UBB to be at the top of the agenda in tonight’s federal election debates. In fact, such issues probably should not be at the top of the agenda and generally I agree that funding pensions, healthcare, the general state of the economy, widening economic inequality, and the moral integrity of the Government-of-the-day are probably more important. Still, though, I didn’t expect digital media and Internet issues to be left out altogether, either.

There are a great many who wield fancy labels like the digital media economy, creative industries and the lot to give such issues a lustre and limelight they may not deserve. Big economic numbers for the media, telecom and Internet industries, and their contributions to the economy, culture and society, are often wielded about to underscore the impressiveness of these things. There is, truth be told, a great deal of puffery involved when it comes to talking about these things.

All of which is to say, that while I agree that digital media and Internet issues probably should not be artificially hyped, they should not be peripheral too the election, or just a blip that gets twittered about opportunistically amongst the twitterati. Why should we care if these issues are not at the centre of televised electoral debates?

First, because as a study by Canadian Media Research Consortium just released underscores, television is still people’s preferred medium for information and news. Television still plays an extraordinary powerful role in bringing things to people’s attention. This not just true for old people or couch dwellers, either. The fact of the matter is that those who spend the most time online are also the heaviest traditional media users, too.

Second, most of the primary news sources behind online news sites are creatures of the dominant traditonal news providers: CTV, Global, CBC-Radio-Canada, Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, Le Presse, Quebecor Media Inc. These entities largely, although not exclusively, play a big role in setting the news agenda for the country’s media as a whole, including the ‘news aggregators’ and blogosphere that thrive off of their efforts.

Of course, we can gain access to the New York Times, Le Monde and the Guardian or the Huffington Post, but they aren’t going to be much help on matters specifically Canadian in focus. Elections are one just such crucial matter.

For issues to be taken as a going concern in a democracy, they must be on the media screen, and in today’s world that means being on at least three different screens: the ‘big screen’ of tv, the glowing screen of the computer, and the wee screen of portable ‘devices’.

Third, media and Internet issues have been central themes in other national elections and politics. Network neutrality and broadband development were cornerstones of the Obama campaign in 2008, for instance; his administration has also paid considerable attention to issues surrounding the so-called ‘crisis of journalism’ and media concentration since then.

In Australia, the Government’s creation of a National Broadband Network to do an end-run around a recalcitrant incumbent — Telstra — in order to bring about a ultra high speed, broadband Internet service to ninety-plus percent of all Australians was extremely prominent and divisive in the 2010 federal elections. The Labour Government now in power supported the initiative, as did the Greens, a few independents, Microsoft and Google.

In Canada, the Usage Based Billing issue has received pretty good coverage in general, but broader media and Internet-related issues and, specifically, their place within the context of the elections, have not fared so well. The link between the media and Internet, on the one side, and electoral politics, on the other, has mostly been made on the Internet and Twitter.

This is important because, as the Canadian Media Research Consortium study pointed to above states, if stranded on a desert island, the internet is the least likely of all media to be let go by people. The importance of the internet in general is reflected in the uses of Facebook and Twitter in particular.

Facebook has been central to the efforts of the advocacy group OpenMedia.ca to make these issues an important part of the election campaign and all the political parties have responded rather eagerly, even if sometimes opportunistically, to ‘trending Twitter topics’ and Facebook-based campaigns.

At the end of 2010,Twitter had an impressive average number of monthly users in Canada of around 3.5 million, according to Comscore (p. 19).  That’s a lot. Many fear Twitter-induced attention deficits and depraved forms of journalism will be the natural upshot of Twitter’s 140 character per tweet format, but Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian in the UK, offers a rousing defense of its contributions to journalism and to public discourse.

However, we also must remember to keep things in perspective. The number of people who use Twitter — roughly 3.5 million a month — is less than the number of people who watched the debates last night or that buy a newspaper every day.  In terms of credibility and trust, the press blows away online sources, and television still fares somewhat better as well — although not much (see p. 14 of the Canadian Media Research Consortium study).

The Twitterverse is also a lot smaller than Facebook. With 22 million unique users a month, Facebook has nearly 7 times the number of unique monthly viewers in Canada (22 million) than Twitter has.

Interestingly, the Broadcast Consortium overseeing the organization of the federal election debates had the foresight to add a Facebook page to the mix of how political debate is circulated in the emergent network media ecology. The development suggests an interesting attempt to meet people where they are.

Facebook also raises anew questions about the relationship between popular culture, the media and politics. Its increasing pivotal role has drawn it closer to traditional conceptions of news and politics. Its inclusion as a formal part of the ‘operational machinery’ of the first televised English-language debates are one indicator of that. Recent overtures by Facebook to news executives is another.

Indeed, as a story on the Globe and Mail’s technology website the other day relayed, Facebook “is looking to strengthen its relationship with the news media and has already helped boost traffic to news websites” (see here).  It also created a special Facebook page just for journalists who want to integrate social media into the journalism process.

The New Yorker drew the connection a step further this month by requiring online readers of the magazine to use Facebook’s “Like” icon to gain access to one of its articles. The experiment essentially sets up the “Like” button as a kind of  “paywall”, but one that tries to translate the ‘social capital’ of Facebook users into a real pot of gold that many commercial media providers hope exists at the end of the digital rainbow.

All of this, of course, adds yet another wrinkle in the ‘evolution of the news’, to put it somewhat grandiosely. To date, the debate has been much about the impact of ‘content aggregators’ like Google and Yahoo on the news industry, and wails from many stalwarts in the latter that the blogosphere lives parasitically off the hard labour of real news organizations and journalists. Enter Facebook stage left.

There is something in all this related to the ‘functional convergence’ between ‘search’ and ‘social’ that I spoke about last week in relation to what I called the Google Switch — i.e. Google’s response to increasing competition from Facebook by increasingly adding ‘social capabilities’ such as ‘+1′ to its ballooning suite of functions such as Orkut, YouTube, Blogger.  However, in the circumstances just outlined, the drift is not from search to social, but rather the other way around. If such a ‘functional convergence’ is in fact taking place, then perhaps it is not just Google, but Facebook and other social networking sites, that will emerge as pivotal to the ‘future of the news’.

Communication researchers have always understood how media and information flows are nestled within existing networks of personal relationships.  Now the process is being digitized, fully commercialized, and rendered visible. Through all of this, will Google and Facebook be good for the News, good for democracy?  Hmm, now there’s a question ripe for pondering in the context of the 2011 election.

Anything But Digital: Politics, Elections and Four ‘Traditional Media’ Issues

It’s fine to talk about the Internet and all things digital. There’s no shortage of fundamental issues whose resolution in the near future will set things on a fairly fixed path for a long time to come. Nonetheless, it’s important to keep our eye on ‘traditional media’, too, and in the context of the current Canadian federal election, four such issues stand out in particular.  They are in no special order of importance:

(1) the Broadcast Consortium consisting of CTV, Global and TVA and CBC/Radio-Canada — that sets the terms for the leadership debates.  Their capacity to set the rules of debate arguably has a strong influence on national elections.

The exclusion of Elizabeth May on the basis of electoral seats held (none) makes some sense from a technical and procedural view of representative democracy; from a broader view of her significance as the embodiment of important stream in the political culture of Canada, the decision to exclude her is a no-brainer.

There is strong evidence of media concentration in Canada (see here). That less than a handful of the dominant players, and this applies just as much to the CBC as to the commercial media organizations, are able to set the terms of debate from their position at the centre of the media universe is problematic.

Off the top of my hat, I would suggest two things might help to turn things around: first, that the Broadcast Consortium be revamped as a “Network Media Consortium” (NWC) consisting of a wider array of players of a more diverse type. This might include, for example, significant online websites such as the Tyee, for example, prominent Canadian blogs, web journalists, a facebook page, etc. The structural diversity of the “NWC” is meant to better represent the structural diversity of the media environment, and the political culture of the country.

Next, we need new rules of engagement that fit our times. A couple of academics from, say, the Canadian Media Research Consortium, a political science, sociology or philosophy professor or two, and a couple of Internet-savvy people who know the politics of digital media well might all contribute to such a make-over. Among the latter, I’m thinking that someone such as Ron Diebert of the Citizen Lab at the UofT might fit the bill (as would many others).

Diebert and his colleague are experts on the worldwide political conditions of the Internet and their most recent book, Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace has been widely praised. The ultra conservative, cyber-libertarian Technology Liberation Front called it “one of the 10 best info-tech policy books of the year” and “. . . essential reading for anyone interested in studying the methods governments are using globally to stifle online expression and dissent”. That not the way I see it, but fine. The broad appeal of Diebert’s expertise would make him or others like him ideal candidates to help steer efforts to create a revamped Network Media Consortium.

(2) The second big issue that is near the surface in this election is the future of the CBC.  In my last post, I indicated that the Conservative Party election platform is mum on the CBC and that could be construed as a good or bad thing.

This might be a good thing because at least it is not singled out to have its budget, or further yet, remit and even right to exist, slashed.  Things could have been a lot worse. Just this week, as my good friend Peter Thompson at the University of Wellington tells me, the New Zealand Government announced that its closing down NZTV 7. The equivalent in Canada would be eliminating the CBC News Network — not the main channel, but one that supplements its offerings in light of changes in the media environment, but a move disparaged by the commercial players as encroaching on their turf.

Maybe this is just a smokescreen, though. Launching a scorched earth policy for the CBC would be too contentious during an election. Is holding back on just such a move part of Harpen’s ‘hidden agenda’?

Besides just staying-the-course or slashing and burning, however, there’s a third option: a strong commitment to a strong role for the CBC as a public service media provider that is central to the digital media ecology, morphing in line with changes in the overall environment in which it and our culture more generally are situated. Perhaps it could start by offering a more expansive digital archive of television programs along the lines already being pursued by the National Film Board (NFB) in Canada and by the BBC through its iPlayer service in the UK — both of which have had very considerable success.

(3) the third big issue stems from the volley of charges that the CBC is the hand-maiden of the Liberal Party. The claims have been trumpeted loudest by various arms of the Quebecor Media group (TVA, Sun TV, Sun Newspapers, Le Journal de Quebec, Le Journal de Montreal, etc.) — the mouthpiece of the Harper Government in Quebec.

Quebecor’s charges look like a more apt description of itself than the CBC. Its board of directors  provides a comfortable perch for former Prime Minister Mulroney as well as the former Conservative appointed CRTC Commissioners (Francoise Bertrand). The sprawling, bloated, debt addled media conglomerate is ruled with an iron fist by the marxist-cum-media oligarch Karl Pierre Péladeau. The company is far closer to the reigning centre of political power than the CBC would (and should) ever be.

Its current attempt to revamp its money-losing Sun TV in Toronto into a viable national cable and satellite TV ‘brand’ is being spearheaded by none other than PM Harper’s recent spin doctor, Kory Teneycke. The outfit proudly styles itself as FNN (Fox News North).

This does not necessarily mean that the sky is falling, but it does mean that Quebecor’s charges are a better reflection of itself than the CBC. As for its claims to representing a kind of working class populism, before we buy into that line we might want to ask the workers at the Le Journal de Quebec and Le Journal de Montreal, respectively, who were locked-out (illegally) and ultimately cut loose over the past five or so years just so something that looks like a contract could be obtained.

(4) News Consumption and its not all doom and gloom (but some of it is).  Two important studies came out this week, each pointing in somewhat opposite directions. One by the Media Research Consortium found that Canadians are over-whelmingly not agreeable to paying for news. As the authors state, “Canadians are more willing to pay for music, games, movies, e-books and even ringtones online than they are to pay for news . . . ” (p. 2). If news is vital to democracy, that doesn’t sound very hopeful.

The annual NADbank readership study also came out.  However, it presented a rosier view when it comes to readership and the press. More people are reading more newspapers. You have to follow their logic carefully to reach their conclusion, but it is safe to say that, at least in terms of ‘attention to news’, there is no ‘crisis’ per se. This could be good for democracy.

Obviously, there is a ton to say on each of these things.  For the time being, though, I thought it was time to put a few things on the map that are out there, but perhaps not quite drawn altogether as they might be.

Conservative Election Platform and the “Nothing New” Digital Economy Policy

The Conservatives released their election platform this morning. The news with respect to those looking for something with respect to broadband Internet development and digital media policy?  Nothing new.

For those looking to see some shift in policy direction that might increase broadband Internet development, greater competition and anything else that has led to the uproar over Usage Based Billing, bandwidth caps and the pay-per Internet model, the document offers little.  No measures are offered to foster greater competition, such as setting aside spectrum for new wireless entrants, encouraging greater foreign ownership, or regulatory reforms so that the CRTC can better address problems of media, telecoms and Internet concentration. Instead, it is business as usual: the maximum reliance on market forces possible.

Nothing new is on the table with respect to broadband Internet development, although existing commitments of spending $225 million over the next five years to help fund the extension of such capabilities to 200,000 rural and remote households are maintained (see page 65).

The Quebec Government’s budget, in contrast, adopted last month announced spending of $900 million between now and 2020 to extend broadband Internet to all Quebecers and, in particular, the 290,000 households in Quebec alone theat currently do not have access to broadband Internet capabilities. In other words, the Conservative platform not only lowballs broadband development relative to, say, Australia, Britain, France, Finland, Korea, Japan and the U.S., it pales in comparison to actions taken by one province: Quebec.

No commitments are made to anything that looks like Network Neutrality, either.

In terms of copyright and digital media policy, nothing new here either, except a promise that a majority Conservative Government will reintroduce and pass quickly the Copyright Modernization Act that died when the election was called. That Act, as others have pointed out, has some very important beneficial qualities, such as formalizing fair use provisions and allowing individuals to create copies of digital content for their personal use across various platforms, i.e. computers, digital music players, tv, and computers.

The Copyright Modernization Act, however, has two fatal flaws: (1) provisions requiring ISPs to function as copyright cops and (2) the outlawing of attempts to undo digital locks that tie media content to specific devices.

Requiring ISPs to function as digital cops is a problem because it puts them on the slippery slope of playing the role of gatekeeper in the digital media environment. Preventing people’s attempts to undo digital locks is also problematic because it prevents people from using the freedom to make personal copies of digital content for their own purposes across different devices/platforms. In other words, digital locks and the content industries’ ability to lock content to specific devices trumps users’ rights to enjoy media content they have legally acquired across whatever platforms they choose to use.

With respect to a few other matters central to cultural policy, the election platform holds the line. For one, the CBC is not mentioned at all, thus sparing it from what some see as a Government hostile to the public broadcaster. This could be a good thing in the face of persistent worries that the Conservatives have a hidden ‘scorched earth’ approach to the CBC and all things cultural policy.

The Canadian Media Fund and Canadian Periodical Fund are also mentioned, without either new commitments made or drastic cutbacks. Thus, rather than slashing the CBC and gutting programs and funding mechanisms designed to foster the development of media content, the Conservatives appear set to maintain the status quo.

All-in-all, the Conservative election platform lays out an underwhelming approach in light of the magnitude of issues in front of us. Despite grandstanding by both PM Harper and Industry Minister Clement in the face of the massive uproar over the January 25 UBB decision by the CRTC, nothing at all is offered that suggests relief or that such considerations are central to the Conservative’s digital media policy. That, in turn, seems to be more rhetoric than substance, a mantra invoked in the hope that some of the pixie dust associated with digital media can transform Conservatives into hipsters. That is definitely not the case.

Two Open Broadband Internet Proposals vs the Pay-per Internet Model

Two new research papers released in the past week add insight into the Usage-Based Billing (UBB) debate in Canada, or what I have been calling the evolution of the pay-per Internet model. The papers are by Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa law professor, and by Bill St. Arnaud, the Chief Research Officer for CANARIE for 15 years (until 2010) and a telecoms engineer. Geist’s paper can be found here, while St. Arnaud’s paper is here.

Both papers were commissioned by Netflix, in light of the fact that developments in Canada are sucking it and others such as Google, Apple, and so forth deeper and deeper into digital media policy issues. All are becoming fixtures in CRTC proceedings. Both papers bear one significant subtle influence of this sponsorship (as I will discuss briefly below), but other than that provide extremely valuable help wading through the technological, economic and regulatory issues surrounding the UBB debates.

Geist and St. Arnaud are both convinced that the CRTC’s plan to revisit it’s January 25th UBB decision that ignited the firestorm over the pay-per Internet model in Canada is far from sufficient. As Geist indicates, a whole series of decisions over the past few years will have to be revisited and the regulator and policy-makers are going to have to deal head-on with the fact that underlying these problems is a heavily concentrated market for Internet access in Canada. I feel similarly, and have laid out the ‘long march’ to the pay-per Internet model in an earlier post.

Playing on earlier decisions regarding the incumbent telecom and cable companies use of technical measures to ‘throttle’ different types of Internet uses that they argue put excessive strain on their networks — the so-called Internet Traffic Management Practices — Geist’s first proposal is for a series of what he brands IBUMPs (Internet Billing Usage Management Practices). The basic gist of which is to make the incumbents’ billing practices for Internet services easy to understand and reasonable when it comes to so-called excess usage charges.

His second set of proposals aim to promote greater competition in the Internet access market. This includes allowing more foreign competitors to enter Canada.

It also involves allowing smaller ISPS and Content Distribution Networks (see below) more scope to interconnect with the incumbents’ networks much deeper in the network and closer to subscribers’ homes (especially the cable companies, who have dragged their heels on this matter for more than a decade). Finally, it means cultivating a greater role for alternative Internet access providers, from city-owned networks, to cooperatively run ISPS, as well as expanding the role of provincial and federal broadband development programs.

As an interesting aside, the Liberal Party’s platform announced on April 2nd as part of the current federal election campaign effectively doubled the commitment that the Liberals would put into expanding broadband networks in remote and rural areas compared to the modest $225 million announced by the Conservatives in 2009. The Quebec Government went even further in the 2011-12 budget passed in March, where it announced that it will invest around $900 million in bringing very high speed Internet access to all Quebecois (see here at pages E.93-96; also see St. Arnaud).

It did not specify the exact capacities of the network, but its references to similar plans in Australia, France, Finland and the US suggest that the bar is high, probably around 100 MBps. Neither the Liberal Party’s election platform nor even the much more ambitious Quebec Government’s scheme are equivalent to or the same as Australia’s National Broadband Company initiative, and nor should they be.

However, they do underscore (1) the under-development of broadband Internet in Canada, (2) the lack of competition offered by the current market, and (c) a willingness to rely on a variety of providers, from the traditional incumbents, to municipalities and provincial governments to improve on the situation at hand. They also suggest that Geist’s proposals, far from pie-in-the-sky, are grounded and with some real, even if tentative support in some crucial quarters.

Bill St. Arnaud’s paper also offers much food for thought and complements Geist’s paper very well. He makes three key points.

First, the massive growth of video online is not necessarily causing congestion. Huh?  How could this be, with clear evidence that the growth of video traffic has been stupendous, ranging from 50 to 100 percent per year and with continued high rates of growth expected in the next few years ahead?

This is because sources responsible for this massive increase are increasingly turning to Content Distribution Networks that, basically, bypass the public Internet and deliver their content as close to their subscribers as possible. These so-called Content Distribution Networks are not only being deployed by outfits such as Netflix, but other large Internet content and service providers, from Amazon, to Google and Facebook. The basic point is that they take traffic off the network for much of the distance a message has to travel.

Second, to the extent that congestion is a problem, this is an outcome of decisions made by the incumbent telecom and cable companies about how to apportion the capacity of their network. As Geist quips in his paper, the ‘chicken roasting channel’ recently introduced by Rogers, for instance, is just so much bandwidth allocated to that ‘service’ rather than to the Internet.

Third, and this is where I think St. Arnaud has an amazingly powerful and clear point, the incumbent telecom and cable companies — the ‘big six’, as I have called them: Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Videotron and Cogeco — appear to have no problem with congestion when it comes to launching their own video content services delivered over the internet, e.g. CTV.ca, globaltv.ca, TVA.ca, etc. Congestion is only caused by other providers’ video services.

Lurking in the background of all this is that we’ve seen this all before. A few years ago, P2P/file-sharing and music downloading sites were the culprit; now the target is online video services. The cable companies have been especially remiss in dragging their feet for a dozen years or more on allowing independent ISPs to access their distribution infrastructure. Despite being required to do so before the turn-of-the-century, the cable cos have thrown one obstacle after another in the path of ISPs requiring last mile access through cable facilities to gain access to subscribers.

All said and done, Geist and St. Arnaud’s paper respectively do a great service. They are timely interventions that help us understand the issues at hand and, if successful, they may help to frame the debates that take place at the hearings that the CRTC has scheduled to revisit the UBB decision in June.

However, we should not hold our breadth on that, and in that regard these papers do a real good job at holding the regulator’s feet to the fire (see my earlier post on this point). The CRTC has a very broad remit to regulate in these matters, as the Telecommunications Act (1993) (sec. 27 (5)) makes clear, but has chosen to draw the proverbial camel through the eye of the needle. With the magnitude of the issues at stake, this is unacceptable.

However, I also think that both papers need to go even further in at least four ways. First, both papers make claims about the highly concentrated state of the telecom, cable and Internet access markets in Canada, but offer little to no data to illustrate and support these claims. Good quality data is now available on these points and they should use it.

Second, both papers focus on the UBB issue, or what in regulatory parlance is now called an economic measure for managing congestion on the Internet. However, the CRTC’s Internet Traffic Management Practices decision (2008) sets out a hierarchy of preferences for dealing with such problems when they can be shown to exist: (1) network investment, (2) economic measures such as UBB, and (3) technological measures, aka throttling.

Neither paper says much, if anything, about the top priority: network investment. Why? At between 15-18 percent of revenues, current levels of investment in their networks by the big six is low by historical and global comparative standards (although in line with similarly low levels in the U.S.). And this despite the fact that the Internet represents a massive new source of revenue ($6.5 billion in 2010).

Third, neither paper pushes as hard as they might on how the use of UBB and the allocation of network capabilities by the incumbents to their own services may constitute a form of “unjust discrimination”. The issue is not totally ignored by any means, but I think it could be pushed further and that doing so is important not just to the question of whether or not we’re going to be stuck with a highly concentrated Internet market and the pay-per Internet model in Canada, but concentration across the whole sweep of the network media ecology, from traditional media to the Internet.  Let me explain. I’ll conclude by returning to my fourth point.

Insofar that these papers deal with ‘unjust discrimination’ they seem to have in mind section 27 of the Telecommunications Act that specifically outlaws such practices. It is a good victory to be had, if it can be had. And the CRTC has, as I stated above, much discretion in how it goes about making such determinations. To the extent that it has chosen to blinker itself is a problem of the first order.

However, it may be possible to go even further and look to the next clause of the Telecommunications Act, section 28, that specifically makes the issue of discriminating between video services, or broadcasting as such things were known when the act was written nearly 20 years ago, a matter of potential concern. Indeed, the CRTC has enormous authority under this section to deal with the issue of discrimination while meeting other objectives of the Broadcasting Act.

Herein, however, may lay the rub, given that both of the papers being discussed here were funded by Netflix, and the last thing that it and other services like it (read: Google, Apple, etc.) want is to be defined as broadcasting services, which could happen if we were to assign the ‘online video distributor’ label on them like the FCC and Dept of Justice did recently in the US in relation to the Comcast/NBC merger.

I, too, am very leery about slapping the label of broadcaster on such entities because of all that would mean with respect to CanCon rules and the like. The CRTC has always indicated that it believes that it has the authority to regulate online video distributors under the Broadcasting Act (see its seminal 1999 new media decision here), but up to now has not seen Internet television services as being significant enough and too experimental to actually do so.

The question of whether ISPs could also be brought under the purview of broadcasting regulations so that, just like cable and Direct-to-Home satellite providers, they too could be required to contribute to funding and displaying CanCon has also been hotly contested. That route seemed to be foreclosed by a Federal Court of Appeal decision in 2010, but that too has now been appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Now, the incumbents en masse are pushing hard to have OVDs like Netflix, Apple and Google regulated as broadcasters just like their own broadcasting-related services. The irony here is that for Netflix to push its case on UBB as hard as possible, adding some water to its wine by accepting some such designation could go a very long way to putting a stop to the discriminatory practices that are now hobbling its access to Canadian subscribers.

While this is far beyond the scope of what I can say here, perhaps a new designation along the OVD line devised in the US might be imported into Canada for just such purposes. That would mean distinct treatment from broadcast television in general, but also some obligations to open up their services to Canadian media creators.

It might also allow a much more forceful push against the anti-discrimination rules of not just one section of the Telecommunications Act, but both sections 27 and 28. Done right, this need not ‘trap’ new players like Netflix in the maw of outmoded aspects of the Broadcasting Act. Instead, it could potentially help to usher in an entirely new media model where all of the bits and pieces that make up the traditional media model are disassembled and reassembled anew in light of the realities of the digital network media industries in the 21st century.

And finally to return to my fourth critique of the Geist and St. Arnaud papers. Both papers target the upcoming UBB decision. This is great, but I think it might be helpful to try and kill two birds with one stone by putting another potentially even more important upcoming regulatory review in their sights: namely, the CRTC’s hearings scheduled for June 2011 on vertical integration.

The ‘vertical integration’ hearings were scheduled late last year but given added impetus when the CRTC approved Bell’s acquisition of CTV last month. The idea of holding such hearings reflects the fact that Canada now also has the dubious honour of standing alone in the extent to which fully-integrated media conglomerates have become the norm. In the U.S., the fully integrated media conglomerate has become the exception (e.g. Comcast/NBC-Universal) after the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger and is pretty much in retreat in almost every other developed capitalist democracy.

There is indeed every reason to be very skeptical about these hearings given that they are a classic case of “bolting the barn door after the horse has already left the stable”. However, given that the use of UBB is completely tangled up with the crucial question of whether or not the “big six” media conglomerates in Canada — Bell, Shaw, Videotron, Rogers, Shaw, Telus (the latter to a lesser extent) — are using the pay-per Internet model to disadvantage competitors and to protect their own traditional television services, as well as their recently-minted internet video services, we must keep our eyes on the full range of big issues before us.

Bandwidth Caps, Bankers and the Canadian Pay-Per Internet Model

Not being the quickest guy with numbers, I often wonder just how much of what we can do on the Internet before hitting the Rogers ‘Bandwith Cap” wall that comes with my service? Using Rogers high-speed express service, I get 60GB per month, after which I will have to fork out $2 per GB.

I mean, first of all, just having to even think about this, let alone having to calculate it is a pain in the neck.  The Globe and Mail had a good break-down the other day of how much bandwidth is involved in downloading email, music files, tv programs and movies. Here’s its graphic.

So, I could send 4 million emails or download 8,570 songs, 37.5 television shows (hd) and 19 movies (hd).  Even if I’m a mad, crazy emailer or music downloader, I’d unlikely hit the limit. But, then again, what if I had a mass distribution list for the eco-feminist news letter I send out to 2,000 people every month, or to my red meat eaters club?

What if I play World of Warcraft? If you think I’m being funny, well, I am trying. But take a look at Teresa Murphy’s letter to the CRTC outlining how Rogers throttles World of Warcraft players. The problem is that restrictions and limits on how we use the Internet are popping up all over the place and for everyone, not just the villified ‘bandwidth hogs’.

The limits are also impinging on how Netflix operates in Canada as well. On March 28 2011, Netflix set the default quality of its video streaming service in Canada to low to help people conserve bandwidth.

In other words, Netflix has deliberately degraded it services relative to what it offers in the U.S. in response to the restrictive conditions imposed by the ‘big six ISPs’ in this country: Bell, Telus, Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor and Cogeco.  Users do, however, have a choice and can still select from three settings:

  1. “Good” – The default setting with good picture quality and lowest data use per hour (about 0.3 GBytes/hour)
  2. “Better” – Better picture quality and medium data use per hour (about 0.7 GBytes/hour)
  3. “Best” – Best picture quality and highest date use per hour (generally about 1.0 GBytes/hour – or up to 2.3 GBytes/hour when streaming HD content)

Tying up the Internet and its users in a thicket of technical and economic restrictions, however, could come back to bite the big 6 in the ass. For that too happen, however, we probably shouldn’t look to the CRTC or to the Harper Government.

The CRTC has already brazenly said that the review sparked by the furor over its January 25, 2011 UBB decision will be narrowly focused on that decision alone. In doing so, it ruled out a critical public examination of the ‘long march’ to the pay-per, provider controlled Internet model in Canada.

Industry Minister Tony Clement is a little more ambivalent on the matter. He offered no rebuke to the CRTC for stubbornly sticking to its myopic focus. He did, however, rebuke Bell’s attempt to replace its wholesale UBB with a new Aggregate Volume Pricing Model.

There are two more interesting areas that hold better prospects of turning this wreck of a digital media policy around, and both lead straight not to the consumer Internet market but rather to the capital investment market.

In a study by the New York branch of the investment bank, Credit Suisse, the author stated that the added cost of using over-the-top video services such as Netflix, AppleTV, etc. due to ‘excess usage charges’ (but which the “big six” exempt their own video/tv services from) could result in people cutting back on their cable and satellite bills. They could do that either by subscribing to a cheaper tier of channels, or dumping cable and satellite TV altogether.

The latter is improbable, at least in any great number, anytime soon.  The idea of cutting back to a cheaper tier of cable channels while cobbling together a range of over-the-top services such as Netflix, Boxee, etc., however, may have more legs. That scares the investment bankers because cheaper tiers mean lower ARPUs (average revenue per user), in the lingo, and that is one of the holy grails for figuring out how much companies are worth on the stock market, i.e. their market capitalization.

The UBB uproar has also spawned fears in the capital investment markets in Canada that Bell, for one, is taking seriously. Thus, during a Conference Call on February 10 2011 with Canada’s leading investment bankers, Jeff Fan of Scotia Capital posed the following question to George Cope, BCE’s CEO:

Yes, good morning.  Thanks very much.  I want to ask you guys about the broadband situation that’s going on.  A lot of  investors are obviously quite concerned about what’s going on on the regulatory front with usage-based billing so perhaps can you give us a sense of what . . . the impact of this could be should the government move forward on a more Draconian basis? (emphasis added, see page 12)

Fan was not alone in raising the issue. And Cope went on and on to assuage any concerns. But look again at the last line in Fan’s quote that brands any attempt by regulators to roll back the pay-per Internet model juggernaut would be “Draconian”. Clearly, investment bankers are not on the side of the ‘good and the just’, but their fears reveal cracks in the walls that may play well into the hands of those who do want to turn back the tide.

These are important things to bear in mind as the politics of the Internet unfold. I’ve said in the past that the CRTC is constrained by a heavy-handed and interventionist Harper Government. It is also constrained, apparently, by perceptions on Bay Street. It is also limited by its own timidity.

Nonetheless, there is scope for maneouvre in all this. So long as World of Warcraft players and Internet users of the world unite there may yet be opportunity to stem the tide. A quick search of the Internet shows that others around the world wish Canadians well in their battle against a model that they hope never sees the light of day in their own countries (or more correctly, hope that it never becomes the norm, as it is in Canada, as Professor Geist’s recent study shows).

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