Throughout the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission TalkTV hearing, Canadian broadcasters such as Bell (CTV), Rogers (CITY), and Shaw (Global), tried to assure Canada’s regulator that they were ready to embrace the digital future and prepared for regulatory change. Yet in recent weeks, it has become increasingly apparent that Canadian broadcasters plan to fight change every step of the way.
The effort to keep core business models intact are sometimes obvious. For example, new services such as Shomi and CraveTV are often characterized as Netflix competitors, but given their linkage to a conventional cable or satellite television subscription, are a transparent attempt to persuade consumers to retain existing services and not cut the cord. The viability of those services remains to be seen, but more interesting are the regulatory and legal fights, where Canadian broadcasters are waging an ongoing battle against change.
Bell Media leads the way with the two legal challenges against recent CRTC decisions. Yesterday it asked the Federal Court of Appeal to overrule the CRTC on its decision to ban simultaneous substitution from Super Bowl broadcasts starting in 2017. The Bell motion for leave to appeal strikes me as weak:
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Last fall, Daniel Therrien, the government’s newly appointed Privacy Commissioner of Canada, released the annual report on the Privacy Act, the legislation that governs how government collects, uses, and discloses personal information. The lead story from the report was the result of an audit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police practices regarding warrantless requests for telecom subscriber information.
The audit had been expected to shed new light into RCMP information requests. Auditors were forced to terminate the investigation, however, when they realized that Canada’s national police force simply did not compile the requested information. When asked why the information was not collected, RCMP officials responded that its information management system was never designed to capture access requests.
While that raised serious concerns – the RCMP has since promised to study mechanisms for reporting requests with recommendations expected in April – my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) reports that documents recently obtained under the Access to Information Act reveal that the publicly released audit results significantly understated the severity of the problem. Indeed, after the draft final report was provided to the RCMP in advance for comment, several of the findings were toned down for the public release.
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The Content Industry Connect conference, which was held in Toronto yesterday, featured a panel of leading television executives from Bell, the CBC, Corus, Rogers, and Shaw Media. Several people were live-tweeting the event when a comment from Rogers Senior Vice President David Purdy caught my eye. According to Kelly Lynne Ashton, a media policy expert, Purdy called on the Canadian government to shut down the use of virtual private networks:
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In December 2010, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission passed the Open Internet Order, which featured relatively weak net neutrality rules. Despite their limited impact (the Order did not go as far as the Canadian Internet traffic management practices which were established a year earlier), Verizon challenged their validity in court. A U.S. appeals court sided with Verizon in 2014, ruling that the FCC did not have the authority to issue the order. The Verizon win proved to be short-lived, however, since later this week, the FCC will pass new net neutrality rules that go much further than the 2010 order. As Ars Technica recently noted, the Verizon net neutrality gamble backfired.
The Verizon blunder came to mind this past weekend as word began to circulate that Bell is seeking leave from the courts to challenge the CRTC’s recent net neutrality ruling involving its mobile television service. The company argues that the CRTC does not have the jurisdiction to issue its ruling under the Telecommunications Act (which forbids undue preferences) since the service should be governed by the Broadcasting Act (which does not have an undue preference provision). From Bell’s perspective, the court challenge presumably seems like a no-brainer: if it wins, the ruling is struck down. If it loses, it still delays the implementation of the CRTC decision for months or even years, thereby maintaining its existing practice for the time being.
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The abrupt end of the Sun News Network – its owners pulled the plug on the all-news channel without warning earlier this month – sparked considerable commentary with many lamenting the lost jobs, others examining the quality of the content, and some celebrating the end of a service that was controversial from the moment it launched. Largely left unsaid, however, is that its demise signals the beginning of a new era in Canadian broadcasting in which services are allowed to fail rather than being propped up through regulatory or government support.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the Canadian broadcasting system has long been shielded from market forces through a broad array of regulations that offer both financial compensation and marketplace protection. Those rules have been a boon to broadcasters, who have seen some services succeed with limited viewers and original content.
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