Given our easy access to Hollywood movies and U.S. television programming, it is unsurprising that Canadians have long placed great emphasis on cultural policies. To avoid marginalizing homegrown talent, Canada has set Canadian content as a key objective in the Broadcasting Act, established foreign ownership restrictions within the cultural industries, and safeguarded cultural policies in its international trade agreements.
As a result, Canadian television and radio broadcasters must be Canadian-owned and comply with Canadian content requirements, while funding programs at the federal and provincial level help the Canadian cultural sector compete on the global stage. These policies have enjoyed a measure of success – Canadian musicians and children's television programming are particularly noteworthy in this regard – however the emergence of the Internet and new media is rendering many current policies increasingly irrelevant.
The Internet offers the promise of global distribution of content, a welcome opportunity for Canadian creators who have often suffered from a lack of shelf space or room on the dial in foreign countries. Moreover, technology has leveled the creative playing field, as evidenced by the explosion of user generated content that requires little more than a camera, a computer, and a great idea.
Canadians are a growing part of this story. From video sites (BlogTV.ca, TonClip.com) to video creators (Galacticast.com) to hundreds of Canadian podcasters (Canadapodcasts.ca), the emergence of Canadian new media has blossomed largely without any reliance on longstanding Canadian cultural policies.
This suggests that two pillars of that policy need to be reconsidered. First, the "walled garden" approach that promotes Canadian content by limiting access to foreign content is increasingly being surpassed by technologies that provide universal access to near-unlimited content regardless of the country of origin. Conventional broadcasters may rely on "geo-gating" technologies that seek to replicate offline borders on the Internet, yet the growth of user-generated content and the ready availability of technologies that by-pass porous electronic borders render content requirements almost meaningless in the new media environment.
Second, the emergence of the Internet as the cheapest and most effective distribution platform in the world points to the need to rethink Canadian funding programs. Many programs and policies (foreign investment restrictions, tax credits, movie co-production treaties) are geared chiefly to support either the production or distribution of Canadian content, which was once viewed as the primary barrier to global success for the culture industries. To date, far less attention has been paid to creation, marketing, and access side of Canadian content, yet in the Internet world that is precisely where support is most needed.
Canadian content requirements will unquestionably remain relevant for conventional television and radio for the foreseeable future, however, the more challenging question is whether – or for how long – conventional television and radio will itself remain relevant, particularly in light of Statistics Canada data released last week that found that younger Canadians are abandoning radio en masse.
As the importance of the Internet and new media grows, the Canadian cultural strategy must surely adapt to this new reality.
The CRTC showed signs of recognizing this with its 2005 satellite radio decision that implemented Canadian content safeguards better suited to the technology. Internet-based content presents an even greater challenge since there is no hope – nor any need – to bring Canadian content requirements to the likes of Joost or YouTube. The policy emphasis must instead shift toward creating Canadian content and touching as many people as possible involved in the creative process.
Funding for new media is an important part of the equation. Last month, Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda committed $29 million over the next two years to the Canadian New Media Fund, warning that Canadians were falling behind in the new media arena. That funding will help, yet it pales in comparison to the $1 billion invested in television production by federal and provincial governments.
Moreover, there are other fiscal possibilities, such as tax incentives that place new media on an equal footing with newspaper and broadcasting advertising as well as funding programs that recognize that Canadian creative opportunities extend well beyond the large production companies. Ensuring access is also an important part of the equation, as regulators should preserve the right of Canadians to access the content of their choice on the Internet through net neutrality legislation.
Cultural policies are an important part of what helps define Canada as a nation. As Canadians celebrate Canada Day 2007, it is time to consider how to adapt those policies to the Internet world.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.