The final day of the CRTC’s hearing into the future of television saw a heated clash between CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais and online video distributor Netflix. It was a moment with few precedents, and one ripe with a myriad of fascinating questions (Netflix presentation here; CPAC coverage here).
The clash ignited when Blais’s request to Netflix’s Director of Global Public Policy, Corie Wright, to file information with the commission about the number of subscribers it has in Canada, its revenues in Canada and other information the company does not routinely disclose was met by much hesitance on Netflix’s part. As Wright repeatedly returned to concerns about confidentiality, Blais testily questioned whether Netflix did not trust the CRTC’s ability to deal fairly with companies’ request for confidentiality.
The problem, however, is that while Netflix demanded guarantees of confidentiality, it is the CRTC’s prerogative to determine whether such requests outweigh the public interest in disclosure. And in this regard, Blais refused to concede that prerogative while Netflix was equally intent on assuring confidentiality for information that it never gives out to anyone, no matter who asks.
While that may cut it when it comes to researchers and journalists, it won’t do in the context of a CRTC hearing that is, after all, a quasi-judicial proceeding with stringent legal standards about evidence. The point was made on the opening day of the “Talk TV” hearing as well when a similarly frustrated Blais encountered PR puffery from Google that hardly constituted robust evidence that could be used to shed light on anything other the company’s own interests and story that it’d like to tell the world.
This is not novel and is, indeed, well-established practice. Indeed, for all those who play in the regulatory arena, there is little more frustrating than the extensive use of the infamous hashtag (#) in instances that the CRTC has granted companies confidentiality over those who have sought disclosure. Indeed, for many, the problem is that the CRTC has been too generous in granting confidentiality over disclosure. So, to have Netflix say that it was seeking to pre-empt the question by having guarantees of confidentiality from the get go was beyond the pale, and Blais treated it as such.
So, where do these trade-offs between confidentiality and disclosure come from? Three places.
First, from the general tradition of regulated industries where the interest of the public in the matters at hand are always weighed against business demands – typically expansive – to keep their affairs private.
Second, the CRTC took up the issue in 2007 in a proceeding about just this issue where the Commission observes the following:
. . . [The CRTC] conducts its public processes in an open and transparent manner. In some instances, parties submit information in the course of proceedings for which they request confidentiality. . . . [O]ther parties to the proceeding may request public disclosure of the information. If such a request is granted, the information is put on the public record. If it is determined that the harm outweighs the public interest in disclosure, the request is denied and the information remains confidential.
Basically, Netflix was trying to force the CRTC into a corner today over this issue, and Blais was not having any of it.
Lastly, the CRTC’s Digital Media Exemption Order under which Netflix and other OTT providers operate in Canada albeit exempt from the normal requirements of the Broadcasting Act, makes it clear that such companies are required to submit information regarding their “activities in broadcasting in digital media, and such other information that is required by the Commission in order to monitor the development of broadcasting in digital media”.
Some may not like these requirements, but for the time being they are the rules of the game and having decided to play by the rules of the game since its entry into Canada in 2010, today’s hearing was not the right place for Netflix to challenge them.
We must remember that, since its first New Media Order in 1999, the CRTC has always claimed regulatory authority over television and other broadcasts delivered over the internet but has exempted them from the requirements of the Broadcast Act. It did so on grounds of technological neutrality, fostering creativity and innovation and that doing so would not prove disastrous to the Canadian “broadcast system”. In short, it is not whether the CRTC can regulate the internet broadcasting, as Michael Geist noted the other day, but will it? The answer has unambiguously been yes, the CRTC can regulate internet broadcasting, but will not for the time being. That was the answer in 1999, in 2009 and in its last statement on the matter, the Digital Media Exemption Order (2012).
Three final points. First, Netflix cannot cherry pick the elements of Canadian media and telecoms policy that serve it while cocking a snook at those elements it would rather not deal with. Netflix has been the beneficiary of the CRTC’s robust network neutrality rules, rules that apply both to wiredline telecoms and mobile wireless telecoms providers. This has been a huge benefit to Netflix, and partly on account of such measures its ability to locate its content caching equipment at Canadian telecoms and ISP providers such as Bell, Rogers, Telus and Shaw are a far cry easier in Canada than in the US. The forthcoming CRTC Mobile TV proceeding will help to determine the utility of these rules.
As Netflix does battle in the US at the FCC hearings now taking place over the future of network neutrality in that country, it would do well to recall the comparably better conditions it has in Canada. As Netflix itself noted today, Canada is its best international market and I would suggest that the combination of the CRTC’s network neutrality and light touch Digital Media Exemption Order help explain this state of affairs. As such, when the Commission asks for information and to trust that it will make the proper decision in weighing the company’s claims for confidentiality with the benefits of public disclosure, Netflix would do well to play ball.
Third, Netflix also needs to recognize that, faced with a wall of claims from incumbents for two week’s running that unregulated OTT services threaten the Canadian “television system” altogether, robust evidence could help put such self-serving claims in perspective and is just what the CRTC needs. Indeed, Netflix should meet the CRTC’s deadline for its orders for information of this Monday to help in just this regard, otherwise the CRTC will be left with much self-serving bluster about falling skies and doom and gloom.
Finally, it’s time to recognize that while I don’t personally think that Netflix should be subject to all of the requirements of the Broadcasting Act, this is no longer the days when technophiles could see the Internet as an unregulable space. Those days were always an illusion and, regardless, are over. There is a discussion to be had, and that discussion is already underway in many other countries around the world, as Netflix knows full well.
Outside Canada, the European Union’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive brought online video providers under its sway in 2010. The Dutch and France have also reportedly required it to torque its algorithms to give priority to local content and to contribute to the creation and circulation of television content from both countries and Europe as a whole.
Whether we agree with that or not, it’s now the discussion to be had, rather than ducked with gestures towards the internet as some kind of nirvana that exists outside the normal laws of the land. Neither Netflix, Google nor any other ‘digital media giant’ can escape this reality by invoking the internet as an world beyond regulation when they please while calling for network neutrality when that suits. What we all need to realize, is that an open media requires smart regulation not no regulation.