The continuing consumer group boycott of the CRTC’s Internet code proceeding was raised directly with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during Question Period in the House of Commons yesterday. NDP MP Brian Masse noted “the CRTC says it wants to establish a consumer Internet code of conduct, but has failed to provide sufficient time for consumer groups and the public. The result is a boycotted and broken system.” Trudeau’s responded that the government was proud of working with the CRTC and included a parting shot at the NDP, commenting on its support of a taxes on Internet usage. Regardless of the NDP position on an Internet tax (Masse says he opposes one), what is notable is that it is the CRTC that has emerged as a vocal supporter of an ISP tax. CRTC Chair Ian Scott’s decision to back an ISP tax as part of a larger scheme to regulate Internet-based services not only runs counter to Trudeau’s opposition to an Internet tax but it also points to a regulator that is increasingly anti-consumer in approach.
The consumer group boycott of an Internet code ostensibly designed for consumers is a case in point. Soon after the launch of the proceeding, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre wrote to the CRTC to request that the Commission delay it until after completion of a review on deceptive telecom sales practices (which itself only occurred after the CRTC rejected a call for an investigation and the government stepped in to order an 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, and the Consumers’ Association of Canada – Manitoba Branch. 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 (including PIAC, FRPC, Concordia University’s ACT, and the Consumers’ Association of Canada – Manitoba Branch, CIPPIC, Open Media). Indeed, as Concordia’s ACT told the Commission:
The CRTC’s denial of PIAC’s reasonable request perpetuates digital divides in Canada as it prevents non-profit and research organizations – many of whom represent older and vulnerable populations – from participating in public proceedings that are foundational to a healthy democracy and fair media policy.
The boycott has been joined by Canada’s leading telecom academics and has been the subject of repeated debate on the floor of the House of Commons. Given the Canadian government’s emphasis on consultation – it has been the hallmark of the government since the Liberal election in 2015 – it is hard to think of a more out-of-touch approach for the CRTC.
In fact, the CRTC’s antipathy toward consumer groups is not limited to effective exclusion from the Internet code proceeding. As the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications recently documented, its cost-orders process, which consumer groups rely upon to participate in CRTC proceedings, has been marked by increasing delays that have left some in a desperate financial situation. The FRPC research notes:
An analysis of 135 orders issued by the CRTC in response to applications for costs made by public-interest participants found that from 2013 to November 10, 2017 the time between the filing of costs applications and the CRTC’s publication of costs orders more than doubled, from an average of 3.7 months in 2013, to an average of 8.6 months in 2017.
The situation is particularly troubling for PIAC, which in recent years has experienced lengthier delays than any other consumer group. Earlier this week, PIAC sent out a notification warning that its ability to operate has been put at risk by the CRTC cost order delays.
Not only has the CRTC’s approach toward consumer groups under Scott imperiled the ability to ensure that the public interest in adequately considered as part of the policy process, but its substantive approach has also evidenced a marked shift away from consumer concerns. In addition to supporting an ISP tax that would invariably raise access costs and initially rejecting an investigation into misleading sales tactics, the Commission has weakened its support for ambitious broadband targets in its broadband fund decision, mused about flexible approaches to net neutrality consistent with telecom talking points that support exceptions to the principle, and rejected a mandated MVNO system to support greater wireless competition. With a decision due on low-cost data plans before the end of the year, it would not surprise if the CRTC adopted the latest proposals from the wireless companies that many consumer groups deemed inadequate.
The CRTC operates at arms-length to the government, but with the caveat that the government can issue policy directions or require reconsideration of Commission decisions. The government has already been forced to step in on affordable wireless services and deceptive telecom practices. Given the government’s emphasis on wireless competition, consumer interests, and robust public consultation, it is time for the responsible ministers – including Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains and Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez – to take a closer look at the CRTC in an effort to fix a mess that has rekindled fears of a industry-captured regulator with little regard for consumers or the public interest.