A new report by the CD Howe Institute came out today. It’s not big, just 3 pages and seemingly informed by a bunch of guys sitting around a table at the Howe’s ‘inaugural meeting’ last week (June 17).
It is brash, and some might dress it up as bold: drop all limits on ownership of telecoms and media industries in Canada, it says. Full stop.
No phase out. No ‘newcomer advantages’, full stop again. No attempt to separate the ‘medium’ (wires, spectrum, sewer access) and the message (broadcasting, integrated suite of ‘content’ from mags to blogs) from one another. A digital free for all, you might say.
Perhaps the gentlemen, and they were with the exception of only a single woman, thought this might be a good idea while they sat around and chatted last Friday afternoon. Apparently, there were not so many women ‘law & economics’ types available to join them, given that all but out of the 16 places apparently went to the guys and boys from Bell (see below). I guess ‘law and economics’ types like Sheridan Scott, a hard liner in these matters, and Monica Auer, who generally takes the opposite tack by speaking eloquently and passionately on the telecom and media workers’ behalf, weren’t available, or any of the other smart dames roaming these circles as I saw, in the minority, at the CRTC’s hearings this week.
I looked at the composition of ‘the deciders’ not just because their gender was so obviously skewed, but because I recognized the names of most of the guys. One in particular leapt out, Jeffrey Church, a University of Calgary economics professor. By all accounts, he’s an excellent teacher. Professor Church caught my eye because, in addition to advising the ‘big 3Ps’ in Canada as I’ll call them — Petroleum, Alberta Beef Producers, Pharma — Professor Church just wrote an economic analysis for Bell as part of the very, very important vertically-integrated telecom-media-Internet hearings now being held by the CRTC.
According to Church in his voluminous 93 page submission on Bell’s behalf, vertical integration is good for consumers and for Canada (p.5). I disagree, strongly, for reasons set out regularly in this blog (e.g. here) and my column for the Globe and Mail on Monday.
It’s not just Church that is so closely tied to Bell, but also Marcel Boyer, Bell Canada Professor Emeritus of Industrial Economics, Université de Montréal, as the CD Howe report indicates on the back of this slim 3 page ‘report’. 2 out of 16 does not a majority make, obviously, but their presence does stand out.
The rest of the lot in this ‘law and economics’ crowd does not seem very adventuresome, either. I know one professor occupying a BCE endowed chair that won’t be called upon, Professor Robert E. Babe at the University of Western Ontario, for he has traced the propensity of telecoms historically to go from limited competition to ‘total consolidation’ on a regular basis. Let us say that the fact that Howe ‘report’ has zero to say about such notions is not all that surprising.
The 3 page ‘report’ is candid that dropping the foreign ownership limits on everything — telecom, media, internet — will not increase the number of competitors in the market. As it states, “given the small size of the Canadian market, the consensus view saw no major change in the number of national competitors”.
Translation, the big three companies in wireless telecoms — Bell, Rogers, Telus — for instance will still account for about 94% of the market (according to CWTA 2010), but they might be owned by yet a larger foreign based telco (Vertizon, the ‘new’ AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, etc.) or may private equity funds. Me, I have doubts many foreign investors — telcos, priv equity funds, banks — will even come if permitted to do so (or if we want ’em to on such ‘carte blanche’ terms). I’m not alone on this, and hardly radical, given that even the World Bank states that the keys to effective foreign ownership is a ‘strong state’ able to regulate and competition.
Instead, the Council of 15 wise men and 1 smart woman says, drawing on newfangled theory about ‘competitive innovation’ drawn from the right-wing side of Schumpeterian ‘innovation economics’, that “the gains from liberalization would likely result . . . from better performance by telecommunications market participants”. Umm, I hope so, especially because its this same crowd breying for the withdrawal of any meaningful conception of regulation or state intervention. The CRTC’s horizons have been blinkered and public ventures like CANARIE have had their wings clipped. How foreign capital will ‘improve’ performance standards in Canada is not clear to me/self-evident.
The report advocates this ‘regulatory shock and awe’ to be developed in one swell swoop, with no distinctions kept between telecoms and broadcasting, between networks and content, between incumbents and newcomers. The telecom-media-Internet sectors are now so entangled on account of digitization and how people use media that they must be treated together as a whole. Partial agreement there about treating things ‘holistically’.
More targetted measures are suggested as alternative to foreign ownership for whatever “cultural policies” might be left over. Some of these ‘targetted measures’ I believe in — securing financing for content production, shelf space, strong CBC — and they have been promoted by at least two of the same writers involved in today’s 3 page missive (e.g. see Hunter and Iacobucci, with a third author Michael J. Trebilcock).
There are several problems with this “report”, however, that make it’s contribution to public discussion dubious, despite the fact that it will gain much attention.
1. Three pages is not a report and should not be pitched as one.
2. The Council of the Wise is skewed along lines suggested above, ie. by Bell and by Gender. Bell has always had a visible hand in the telecom, broadcasting and media industries, indeed, since it began broadcasting speeches, songs and sermons in the 1880s and took-over the Chairmanship of the 1905 Mulock Commission which had originally been convened to look into the underdevelopment of the telephone system in Canada in the early days of the 20th century.
So, that Bell continues to be front and centre 100 years later, at the dawn of the 21st century, is both a marker of continuity and somewhat unsurprising, but equally suspect/problematic in each of these occasions. The presence of Bell’s hired gun (Church), a Bell sponsored ‘academic chair’ (emeritus, Boyer), and BCE CEO George Cope’s speech at the C.D. Howe two months ago all so bunched up in time and common stance has a whiff of something not quite right about it.
3. While I don’t actually have many problems with increasing competition and dissolving lines between the medium and the message, or the network infrastructure and content, we also need to be upfront about the fact that the former (media infrastructure) are generally scarce and the latter (messages) abundant. In today’s OECD Communication Outlook 2011, it is clear that, generally speaking, the top 2 ‘netcos’ in each of the OECD countries account for between two-thirds and three quarters of fixed and mobile telecom network markets in each of the OECD countries (pp. 56-59). This means:
- that Netcos generally should be regulated for market power, ‘messagcos’ generally not.
- ties between Netcos and Messagcos are congenitally fraught with problems and propensity for anti-competitive behaviour.
- Free speech standards and the values of a ‘networked free press‘ are also at play (and here). As the United Nation’s Human Rights Council recently stated, those standards apply to the Internet and people should have, as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of the Rights stated before it in 1948, the freedom to receive and impart any information, through any media regardless of frontiers. At the CRTC Hearings on vertical integration the other day, Bell’s Mirko Bibic and Shaw’s brass called the idea that people should have access to any content on any device “preposterous”. The C.D. Howe ‘report’ is oblivious to these considerations.
4. The C.D. Howe report misses reality and the ‘big picture’. Perhaps this is because there is not a whiff of heterodox thinking among the ‘law & economics’ experts who wrote it. Not one ‘ecclectic’ economists, not one wild eyed, crazy lawyer, not a communication and media scholars or a historian in sight.
This is too bad because as long as it continues to be the case, people will continue to talk past one another. And it also means that ‘reports’ like this one, and the policies and approaches that actually do follow close in tow in the ‘real world’, will lack legitimacy.
5. Without being able to expand their horizon, the authors of the C.D. Howe ‘report’ blithely countenance “North American integration”. Economically, as I said above, I don’t have a particular problem with that, although I doubt that things will pan out as they expect, and even that what the Howe folks do expect ain’t much (“better performance” from same number of players).
Politically and culturally, however, there is a problem, not with Cancon and ‘traditionalist/romanticist’ conceptions of culture, but ‘network culture’. Netcos and search engines are now closely allied with state security, military strategy and defense contractors. It’s probably best to keep some clear blue water between these domains. The authors give no hint that they have even thought of this.
Netcos, ISPs, search engines, etc. are also constantly being badgered by lobbyists as well as politicians in Canada and the U.S. to play a greater role on behalf of media and entertainment industries (for most recent and strong opposition to this from within just the mainstream’, see here). The approaches have differed, with the last government in Canada wisely turning down lobbyists push to have ISPs play the role of ‘copyright cop’, disconnecting people who repeatedly are identified as ‘copyright bandits’.
The International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) launched it’s efforts to lean hard on ISPs and search engines, and less on Digital Rights Management (DRM), in 2008. It has been picking off ‘wins’ for this agenda around the world, but not so much yet in Canada.
Yesterday, CNet journalist Greg Sandoval reported that AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon “are closer than ever to striking a deal with media and entertainment companies that would call for them to establish new and tougher punishments for customers who refuse to stop using their networks to pirate films, music and other intellectual property”. That turn-of-heart, in turn, he reports, was eased by coaxing from the Obama Administration and the National Cable TV Association.
The pressure is already strong in Canada, but so far government and regulators have refused to make ISPs the deputies of the media and entertainment industries or to regulate the Internet as a broadcast distribution medium. On law and order, however, the push is for a stronger state and more compliant Netcos and Searchcos.
While there’s lots of dots to connect between all of these latter points, the key idea is that integration at the network and market levels is going to increase pressure to harmonize tougher matters that impinge greatly on network media, and thus network culture. That the blokes and one women from C.D. Howe have nary a word about this and don’t dare let the phrases ‘network neutrality’ and ‘open media’ cross their lips is a problem of the first order because those concerns, as sure as night follows day, are at the heart of the emergent network media culture. How can foreign ownership be reconciled with these concerns should be the question, rather than if it if good or bad altogether.
In sum, until we can start speaking one another’s language and stop passing off economic and policy platitudes backed by those with big stakes in the game, the nominal ideas presented in this “report” should be shelved and other big questions — vertical integration, for example — put on hold.
Ultimately, Pork, Petroleum and Pharma are not the same as telecoms and media. We need some new thinking for ‘new media’.
Until we recognize this, we’re not going to get very far, at least in a a way that takes into account the full range of issues at hand, rather than the economists narrow measuring rod of value.
While writing the last post on the potential termination of funding for CANARIE, I got in touch with someone who I have recently come to know and have a great deal of respect for, Bill St. Arnaud. Bill’s important to the CANARIE story because he was Chief Research Officer with it for fifteen years before starting off on new adventures in early 2010.
After reading CANARIE’s annual reports for the last decade and the Government’s budget for 2011-12 tabled last week in Parliament that signals the end of CANARIE as a government funded initiative, I got in touch with Bill to see if I was understanding things correctly. Here’s a brief reprisal of the email conversation we had:
Dear Bill, I was wondering if you could please help me make some sense of some numbers related to Canarie that I’ve recently come across in the Governments Budget for the upcoming year? I see that they refer to the ‘sunset’ of $31m in funding to Canarie last year, and zero allocated for the upcoming year. Surely that doesn’t mean that Canarie’s entire budget has been eliminated, does it?
BSA: CANARIE receives only block grants approximately every 5 years. The last block grant was for $120m in 2007 . . . . So currently CANARIE’s funding sunsets next March. . . . CANARIE has virtually no other sources of income.
Over its 15 years existence CANARIE has received almost half billion dollars in funding made from a multitude of block grants. After the receipt of each block grant many times the government has told CANARIE that it should be self sustainable from that point on. Finally I think this government actually means it this time. But CANARIE’s board and management is actively lobbying government for another block grant when the current one expires next March.
However I have been arguing for some time that CANARIE should be self sustainable, at least on a day to day operational basis. Many of CANARIE’s counterpart research networks around the world are operationally sustainable like those in Australia, US, Nordic countries, Netherlands, etc.
Although some of these networks, from time to time do receive capital funding to invest in new infrastructure or build community networks. Being operationally sustainable, has its challenges (especially at this late hour), but it has a number of advantages:
(a) It would give CANARIE the freedom and independence to pursue more aggressive broadband strategies without fear of reprisals from incumbents lobbying government to prohibit such activities. Internet 2, in the US for example, when it was created deliberately eschewed government funding for this reason
(b) CANARIE can do much better long term planning instead of having to stare at a 5 year horizon. The last block grant literally came at the midnight hour – and we had to start to give layoff notices to many staff just prior to receiving the funding
(c) CANARIE can be a much greater force for innovation if it is self sustainable by offering innovative new services such as national wireless, zero carbon Internet, community networking etc
So, if Bill is right, then the end of government funding doesn’t necessarily mean the end of CANARIE.
But will it continue to operate as a semi-independent actor capable of experimenting with advanced versions of the Internet that will only become widely available years from now? Will it continue to push the envelope when it comes to open network and interoperability principles that define the original, non-commercial Internet?
In other words, will it continue to set an independent, alternative high-bar standard against which the incumbent telecom providers — Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Telus, Quebecor, Cogeco, etc. — can be critically assessed?
While I struggled to get my head around the idea that it could be okay to cut CANARIE off of government funds cold-turkey, it also took a while to fully realize Bill’s first point: that CANARIE has been put under incredible constraints already by incumbents constantly badgering the government to keep it on a short leash. In other words,the incumbents have pushed to keep CANARIE from actually competing with them in ‘the market’. It’s done what its done, so to speak, with one arm tied behind its back.
So getting CANARIE off the government trough seems to be Bill’s way of hoping that doing so might give it greater room for manouver outside the constraints imposed on it by governments acting at the behest of incumbent lobbyist. This is an incredibly important point, but one might wonder if government ought not steel its spine and actually stand down the lobbyists?
My feeling is that it would be better, in short, to have continued public funding and proper shielding from undue commercial influence. In a perfect world, we could have both, but I now understand why Bill doesn’t see cutting funds for CANARIE as the death blow I originally anticipated.
Maybe this can all be made a bit clearer by drawing parallels to television and hockey. It is commonplace in Canada and all countries with any kind of public service media for commercial broadcasters to whine about the CBC ‘unfairly’ competing with them for the rights to air NHL hockey games and anything else that draws eyeballs and attention. And so too for CANARIE, because the comparisons drawn with the private sector might not prove so favourable, better to cordone it off in areas the private sector is willing to leave behind to begin with. Seeing things from Bill’s perspective we can only imagine what CANARIE might it do if set loose after being held on a short leash for all these years?
In all of this is a vital demonstration in the political economy of communication, and it is as old as the first telegraphs, submarine cables and so forth in the 19th Century, and that is that governments shall never compete with private capital for markets. In ‘normal economics’ it’s called crowding out, while a more radical perspective sees this as the subordination of democratically elected governments to the interests of capital, or business to put it more simply. Today, it’s putting things like CANARIE and the CBC on short leashes, so that they can be ‘remedial public’ programs, not hardcore alternative providers in ‘the market’.
We can also see this kind of thing in familiar terms when we look across the Atlantic to the UK, where the BBC — a core public service media provider — is constantly under pressure from the likes of James Murdoch of News Corp. and the Newspaper Publishers Association, for instance, to trim its sales. The Newspaper Publishers Association, for instance, argues that the BBC’s online news ambitions “threaten to strangle an important new market for news and information”.
Translation? The BBC should be tied to the mast of a sinking ship: television broadcasting, with rabbit ears preferably, while the rest of the explosive digital and commercial media market is handed off exclusively to ‘market forces’. This is a point that has also been driven home to me by my friend and NZ communication scholar, Peter Thompson, who recounts how Canwest Media used its ownership of television and radio interests to similarly argue against anything other than the most minimal role for TVNZ. It is also the basis of our own Conservative Government’s Directive to the CRTC to ‘rely on market forces to the maximum extent possible’ (for another post on this with respect to UBB and bandwidth caps, see here).
But back to CANARIE, some economic independence from government coffers could lead to greater autonomy and fewer shackles. Yet, CANARIE could also simply be sold to the highest bidder, likely those who previously fought tooth and nail to constrain it? In that sense, it would be grafted onto the operations of one or other of the existing incumbents and constitute yet another moment when government policy serves a primary purpose: to expand markets and open new sources of revenue for the private telecoms carriers.
These are some critical questions and with nothing more than a line item buried in the budget alerting us to any of this, we should start thinking about these questions now before CANARIE really does come to the end of the line in March 2012.
** With thanks to Bill St. Arnaud for his help and agreeing to let me use our correspondence for this post. Bill’s blog can be seen here.
Whew, I’m just coming back from blogosphere, and sheesh can things sometimes get tough out there. I’ve been thinking the last few days about an idea based on these forays into blogs, columns for newspapers, and stuff like that: Blogoslama, or what happens when the trolls of cyberspace get nasty.
That’s the title I have for people like Know Your Facts, RightTruth, TheFactCorrector, TheCorrectOpinion, SeektheTruth and, well, you get the picture, that run around blustering and puffing up their chest in umbrage over something or other that you’ve wrote.
Now don’t get me wrong, and sometimes these strange combinations yield fruit. I enjoy the to and fro of online conversations and generally think highly of them, for reasons that I’ve attributed in previous posts to scholars like Yochai Benkler, Nancy Baym, and others who see these activities of valuable forms of ‘sociality’ and public communication.
I also like the interesting characters like Strunk&White and UseYourSpellCheck who politely remind people how important a tidy sentence is to a civil conversation. And there’s others like Grumpy Scientist, TvWorker, and Old Green who speak wisely, although maybe somewhat slower than others in these sometimes rough and tumble places do. Amidst these different voices are some that really make you think, and sometimes to do a rethink.
Sometimes, though, I must admit, I can feel my skin growing thicker. In some wierd way, the old ‘blender theory of truth’ espoused by great liberals is alive and well. This is the theory that if we throw enough ideas into the mix, the truth, or at least the possibility of understanding, will rise to the top. Some say the Internet, and the blogosphere in particular, functions as a giant ‘echo chamber’, hardening opinions and throwing a monkey-wrench in the ‘blender theory of understanding’. In broad brush terms, I disagree.
So there I was just checking in on my recent contribution to The Mark, a piece that takes a blog entry I did on May 27th about cable media conglomerate Shaw’s new Internet pricing polices. A reworked, shorter and much polished version of that appeared this week as “We”ll Lift Your Internet Cap — If you Buy Our Cable TV” on The Mark. Between now and then, little did I know, Shaw had replaced its first new plan with a new, new one — each a ‘better response’ to ‘public consultation’ than the one before.
The story was a response to Shaw’s announcement last month that it would be doubling the bandwidth of its High Speed Internet services, while maintaining the same price and speeds for these services. Even more importantly, it announced that it would be offering two new tiers of High Speed Internet Services that offered even higher speeds and more voluminous bandwidth caps, up to 1TB in some cases and in others no caps at all. Shaw made a big deal of this, splashing about the news that it had made these ‘radical’ changes in light of recently held consultations with its subscribers.
This is and was a pretty big deal, especially in Canada where the user-centric and open Internet has been transformed step by step into a pay model where bandwidth caps are nearly universal and costs out of line with relevant global comparative standards. We have been drifting steadily toward the pay per Internet model, with Usage Based Billing and Bandwidth Caps leading the way. I am opposed generally and strongly to the direction of events.
One fly in the ointment, however, with the big splashy announcement was that the you can only get the high end Internet capabilities by purchasing one of two of Shaw’s television services . . . as they become available over the next 16 months.
As a quote from Shaw’s official site stated: “These broadband packages will come bundled with TV and will roll out in two phases.”
In other words, this was ‘tied selling’, which is a big problem with vertically integrated media conglomerates. It also looked like a Business Protection Plan for Shaws vast television interests, from cables, to DTH satellite service, the Global network and a vast stable of television and radio broadcast stations. And in this regard, Shaw is symptomatic of a broader problem in Canada: the extent that such integrated media conglomerates continue to roam the earth. Elsewhere, such beasts are generally on the wane, although Comcast’s acquisition of NBC earlier this year is an important exception.
Otherwise, in the US, media behemoths such as AOL Time Warner and ATT fell apart (although Comcast NBC is making a comeback), Vivendi in Europe exploded, and the story is similar from one country to the next. The main point for here, though, is that Shaw appeared to be merely tinkering generously with the ‘pay-per Internet’ model and then using it to defend other elements of its media stable. I was also circumspect of its claims about all of this coming from the good graces of the company after a series of consultations with subscribers. I think it had more to do with the intent politics of the Internet that have been at a steady and high boil for at least the past six months — a kind of late realization of the gravity of the stakes at hand, after years of slumber.
Anyway, to make a long story short, as soon as you start talking about concentrations of corporate power and the Internet being bent to private interests, people get their backs up, and in cyberspace, where anonymity is the lubricant of choice, they let you have it
Know Your Facts, who I introduced to you above, blasted me, stating that I should, umm, in his very own words, “No your facts before you write a objective review”. I don’t think that I ever claimed to be objective, but I do claim to be thorough and honest and good with the evidence at hand and that I produce, interpret and put in context. But before I could talk to KYF about the production and interpretation of facts, and how that renders notions of ‘objectivity’ problematic, he wound up and smacked me, FULL CAPS ON.
High Speed Internet services from Shaw are available from Shaw. He sent me a link that went to a Shaw page that required me to tell them where I lived so that Emma, or whatever their silly ‘agent’ is called, could tell me what’s on offer. It was a dead-end.
But I was wondering, had I made a mistake, lost the plot? Was it true, as WordUp said (slinking into the saloon), that by just referring to the ‘big 5’ other media behemoths alongside Shaw that I had blinded myself to reality?
Umm, no. I checked again. And again. The document I was relying on was still there. It clearly said everything I said above. Here it is again for your reference.
But then Craig arrived. Craig, you see, is from Shaw. He seems like a nice guy. He posted something to The Mark, in the comments section under my article. Everything now makes sense.
Shaw changed its pricing again on June 6th. The source I had been relying on had been superceded. The new page is here.
The improvements are considerable and I am glad that Shaw has seen fit to go further than the initial scheme announced to much fanfare. There are still some quibbles that one might gnaw on, but the broad principle that access to the highest end Internet capabilities should not be tied to a subscription to any of Shaw’s television services.
To be sure, Shaw has raised the bar and it is to be applauded for doing so. If it can just get rid of the bandwidth caps altogether and make sure pricing is in line with relevant global comparisons, then, at least when it comes to Shaw, we will be able to rest at ease.
Yet, one thing that also is crucial to this is that the bar set by Shaw should also become the minimum baseline standard adopted by the rest of the ‘big 5’: Bell, Rogers, Quebecor, Telus and Cogeco. Moreover, and to repeat from an earlier post, these must not be seen as a diversion from the central issues that remain core to the upcoming CRTC hearings on vertical integration and UBB.
Ooops, I did it again. Did that screw it all up for you?
The following is my column for the Globe and Mail today, with the addition of a few links here and there. I am fully alert to the fact that this is a very, very touchy subject, not least because musicians and artists are at the centre of the debate, but have been, other than a few megastars, the least to benefit financially from either conditions in the past, or those that prevail today.
Those interested in the topic might find my previous two posts of interests in this regard: the first one looks at the ‘methods’ involved in assessing the state of the music industry. It ends with the crucial proviso that we can collect “all the evidence in the world but still be morally stupid because you’ve thrown the artists and musicians amongst us under the bus”. In other words, this is not just about fun and games, but real people trying to make a real living.
That said, however, I am skeptical of the claims typically made on behalf the ‘music industry’, and equally circumspect that the interests of musicians are interchangeable with those of ‘the suits’ in the business. For those who want to hear something similar from somebody ‘inside the biz’, and who really knows his stuff, look at Bob Lefsetz’s newsletter.
Thanks to Bob, I’m listening to two great bands right now: Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons. It’s all about the music, being good, nay great, at what you do, and crucially the fans, those who adore your stuff and rave about you to others.
The second of these two posts sets out the idea that the music industry was in many fundamental ways the offspring of rivalry between the telegraph giant Western Union and then snarly upstart Bell Telephone Company in the late-1870s and 1880s. If rivalry between ‘network technologies’ gave birth to the music industry in the late-19th century, I think it is unlikely that ‘network technologies’ like the Internet and P2P are going to lead to their demise in the 21st century. History, in short, may be a useful and sturdy guide for thinking through the issues now in front of us.
Now, I’ll turn to the slightly revised/extended version of my column from today.
For more than a decade, the music industry in Canada, and globally, has been cast as being in dire straits — a portent of things to come for all media in the ‘digital age’, unless copyright laws are updated soon to combat illegal downloading.
The notoriety of file-sharing networks from Napster in the late-1990s, to Pirate Bay and the meting out of stiff punishment to Limewire is legendary. New sites emerge as swiftly as old ones are prosecuted out of business, fueling perceptions that the music industry is under siege.
Many claim this will only get worse as broadband Internet becomes a taken-for-granted fixture of everyday life. Copyright legislation has been proposed three times since 2005 by Conservative and Liberal governments alike.
Last year’s effort, The Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-32), died when the election was called. It’ll be back. The Conservative’s election manifesto said it would be.
The Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), backed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), argues that legislation delayed is justice denied. While Parliament dithers, they say, musicians and the music industry are getting slaughtered.
According to the IFPI, “overall music sales fell by around 30 per cent between 2004 and 2009” worldwide. The trend in Canada appears even worse, with “recorded music sales” plunging to a third of what they were in 2004, as the following figure shows.
‘Recorded Music Industry’ Revenues in Canada, 1998 – 2010
Source: Statistics Canada; PriceWaterhouseCooper.
But stop the music. What if this image of a beleaguered music industry is badly flawed?
Cont’d on Page 2 . . . . . . . .
Hmmm, I’ve been beavering away on my next column for the Globe and Mail. Sheesh, it wasn’t suppose to be this way; the ideas are just supposed to flow.
But I digress. And the article is on a touchy and touchy-feely topic, music, the music business and copyright.
Everybody loves a song and deep down fashions themselves a singer of at least something. At least I do. While the love and art of music may be alive and well, maybe even flourishing, by most lights the business side of things is, well, a bit of a trainwreck.
‘Record sales’, they say, are in a death spiral. Indeed, Google the phrase “death of music industry” and you get 14,600,000 hits. Based on ‘Google Hits’, the “death of music industry” mantra is about one third as popular as Lady Gaga, who clocked in today with 42,700,000 ‘Google Hits’ (GH, here on out).
Some of the big 4 major labels — Warner, EMI, Universal and Sony — have roots going back to the very early days of the 20th century, and to the mid-19th if we count bible publisher-come-music and media conglomerate Bertelsmann. Today they appear to be tearing themselves to pieces.
Bertelsmann ditched its half stake in Sony BMG in 2008, but kept its ‘music publishing rights’ line (a point whose significance will become apparent below). EMI is locked in a nasty turf war between scrubby private equity firm Terra Firma Capital (it appears it is anything but ‘firm soil’) and one of the planet’s big four bankers, the Citigroup (see here).
Music and money seems to be a constant theme here. Citigroup has also put the venerable Warner Music up for auction, after its former parent company, Time Warner, cast off the company in 2005. Universal remains part of Vivendi, the French industrial-media conglomerate that has its own fair share of trouble in many quarters (i.e. a lot of fraud convictions), if not so evidently in the music business.
Big global concert and merchandising promoters like Live Nation and AEG are having their own share of woes as well, it would seem. The concert and live entertainment/merchandising side of the industry has gone boffo, but the two biggest players have blown up their balance sheets through a wave of consolidation. If anyone ever wants to see what happens when the money guys and marketers get a full grip on culture, or music, than have a good luck at the last half dozen Annual Reports from Live Nation, for example. It’s a disaster.
Even Google seems unable to find a steady place amongst the turbulent waters that constitute the music industry.
All of which is to say that the evidence seems overwhelming that the music industry is in crisis. Umm, I’m not so sure, but I’ll leave the particulars to that for early next week in my Globe column.
Here, I want to focus on two other things that I think are helpful.
Cont’d on Page 2 . . . . . . . .
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.
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.
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?