Last month, the CRTC announced plans to create an Internet Code of Conduct. The CRTC promised that the code would establish “consumer friendly business practices, provide consumers with easy-to-understand contracts, ensure consumers have tools to avoid bill shock, and make it easier for consumers to switch providers.” The code attracted some initial criticism due to the wide range of exclusions – everything from net neutrality to privacy to broadband speeds falls outside its scope – but in recent days an even bigger concern has emerged with several leading Canadian consumer groups actively boycotting the proceeding.
Soon after the launch of the proceeding, groups filed a request with the CRTC for an extension in the deadline for comments. The Commission announced the plan on November 8th and said that all comments were due by December 19th. The tight timeline would be challenging under any circumstances, but when coupled with the current Broadcasting and Telecom Legislative Review (original deadline of December 10th, extended to January 11, 2019) and the CRTC inquiry into misleading or aggressive telecom practices, consumer groups feared that they could not effectively participate in the proceeding.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre wrote to the CRTC immediately after the announcement to request that the Commission delay the proceeding until after completion of the sales practices inquiry. In practice, that would mean moving the comment period to April 2019. The PIAC request was supported by several groups, including the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications, Union des consommateurs, CNOC, the Consumers’ Association of Canada – Manitoba Branch, and the Canadian Association of the Deaf. The CRTC denied the request, concluding that 40 days (which includes weekends) was sufficient time to provide comments regardless of other activities.
The CRTC denial has sparked a groundswell of opposition from consumer groups with many announcing that they will boycott or not participate in the CRTC proceeding (PIAC, FRPC, Concordia University’s ACT, and the Consumers’ Association of Canada – Manitoba Branch, CIPPIC, Open Media). In addition, I am advised that others will speaking out against the Commission approach in the coming days. The boycott has resulted in an odd dynamic in which the CRTC professes to establish a consumer-oriented Internet code yet it simultaneously effectively excludes consumers from actively participating in its development.
The message from consumer groups is clear. Despite a near-overwhelming power imbalance and scarce resources, the groups keep coming back to CRTC proceedings in the hope of injecting missing perspectives, data, and analysis. But those efforts take time and the Commission’s determination to place the Internet code on a rocket docket without reference to other initiatives is incompatible with developing high quality submissions. Unfortunately, the CRTC’s message seems equally clear. For the current Commission, the consultation process is little more than theatre, a box-ticking exercise in which the importance of a diversity of voices takes a back seat to a desire to justify decisions by claiming that “everyone had their chance” to participate.
The public interest community frustration with CRTC Chair Ian Scott has been mounting over the past year with delays in cost awards, the denial of new wireless competition through mandated MVNOs, doubts about net neutrality, disappointing Internet service targets, and Commission calls for new Internet taxes. However, the rush to establish a consumer Internet code that will not include many notable consumer voices sends a signal of a Commission badly out-of-touch with consumer concerns and out-of-step with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains’ priorities for the sector.