Politicians are sometimes said to struggle with “developing policy at Internet speed,” but Thursday the government gave new meaning to the words. My Globe and Mail op-ed notes that as Liberal MPs were presenting the much-anticipated Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage report on media that included a recommendation for a 5-per-cent tax on broadband access, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly were assuring Canadians that the government had no intention of accepting the committee’s proposal.
Ms. Joly left the door open to an Internet tax last year through her national consultation on Canadian content in a digital world, steadfastly refusing to take a firm position on the issue. The committee report effectively ended the debate as the immediate criticism of the ill-advised policy measure means that an Internet tax has about as much future as a dial-up modem.
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The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage is reportedly set to release its much-anticipated study on the future of media today with a recommendation for a new 5% tax on broadband services to fund Canadian media and the creation of Cancon. The Globe reports that the Conservative MPs on the committee oppose the recommendation. I raised concerns about the possibility of new digital taxes last fall, fearing that Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly would implement them as part of her review of Cancon in a digital world and noting that the Ontario government appeared supportive of the approach. Joly has yet to outline her plans which are scheduled for release in September, but has refused to rule out Internet taxes and regulation. I will update this post once the full report is released, but based on the Globe report it must be stated that an Internet tax to fund Canadian content is a terrible policy choice with exceptionally harmful effects on the poorest and most vulnerable households in Canada.
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The Canadian Heritage consultation on Canadian content in a digital world recently concluded and the department has now posted the responses. There are few surprises with many creator groups supporting Netflix and Internet taxes, while Internet providers and consumer groups oppose them (my submission can be found here). The Ontario government was the only provincial government to file a response. The Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport’s submission acknowledges that there is “no evidence of an overall Cancon policy failure that would justify revolutionary policy reform”, but leaves little doubt that the government is open to new Internet taxes to fund Canadian content.
The Ontario government previously worked toward a Netflix tax as part of the CRTC’s Let’s Talk TV consultation. Given the controversy that generated, it is a bit more cautious this time but its support is not difficult to discern. Its starting point is that all industry players in the Canadian media market be required to contribute to Cancon. The submission states:
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As Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly’s consultation on Canadian content in a digital world nears its conclusion – comments are due by November 25th – the big issue remains how to pay for an ambitious culture agenda. Joly has emphasized the benefits of expanding exports, which she hopes will bring foreign dollars and more foreign investment in the sector. While a stronger global presence makes sense, many of the established cultural groups have voiced opposition to measures designed to attract greater foreign participation if it risks reducing the guaranteed Canadian role in productions.
For example, the CRTC’s decision to loosen some Cancon rules has elicited ongoing anger, despite the fact that the change would likely make productions with foreign entities more attractive, thereby enlarging the overall size of the industry in Canada. With similar opposition to market-based reforms designed to reduce dependence on the current system (pick-and-pay television channels, gradual reduction of simultaneous substitution), there is little reason to believe that Joly can count on support for expanded exports to pay the bills.
This post unpacks some of the cultural policy options that have surfaced in recent weeks. The post stems from a panel discussion at the University of Ottawa featuring a paper by Richard Stursberg and commentary from myself, the Globe’s Kate Taylor (who covered the panel here), and ACTRA’s Ferne Downey (Stursberg’s paper is here, full video of the event here).
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Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly hosted a public meeting in Montreal last week as part of her consultation on Canadian content in the digital world. The media reports from the event included a focus on comments from musician Patrick Watson, who is quoted as saying that no one would be on the Internet if there were no movies, television or music. Reports indicate that the comment generated support in the room and from Joly. In fact, hours later, Joly tweeted out “thoughtful words from @patrickwatson ‘without culture, nobody would be on the Internet'”.
If that really represents Minister Joly’s worldview on the Internet, there should be little doubt that an Internet tax will play a key role in her future plans. Claims that no one would be on the Internet without culture is demonstrably false, but it is consistent with the argument that Internet service providers and Internet companies owe their revenues to the cultural content accessed by subscribers and they should therefore be required to contribute to the system much like broadcasters and broadcast distributors.
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