I’m not even sure who watches television any more.
Most of us stream content these days, and much of that content isn’t even Canadian. So why is our Federal government still spending millions of tax dollars subsidizing traditional media?
That’s a question Mélanie Joly, Canada’s new heritage minister, is asking Canadians. Yesterday she announced an open consultation “to strengthen the creation, discovery and export of Canadian content” in a new digital world. She told the CBC,
As we adjust to the realities of rapid technological advances and changing consumer behaviour, I am launching consultations to better understand the challenges and opportunities brought on by this transformation.
Canada has been seeing a surge of online streaming content, with new entrants into the market competing with services like Netflix.
The new government has already expressed a commitment to enhance Canadian arts and culture in a digital age, including increased funding to the Canada Council of the Arts, Telefilm, the National Film Board of Canada, and the CBC. At the same time, she’s indicated that institutions like CBC should take cues from media channels like Vice.
Examples of legislation which could be reexamined includes ownership and control of content under the Broadcasting Act, protections around content under the Copyright Act, subsidies provided under the Income Tax Act, and even amendments to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Act itself, which defines the role of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
The last time these media regulations were amended was in 1991. Since that time, Canada has become the third most important music and video games exporter in the world. But Canadian media is also about the consumption of media created and produced elsewhere, which has now become infinitely more easy.
The digitization of media already prompted the CRTC early last year to drop its Canadian-content (Cancon) rules outside of weekday prime time, citing consumer choice around online streaming as making these rules less relevant. Streaming services would be able to offer their own content as long as it was available nationally.
Joly has indicated she might create entirely new statutes or agencies to govern this area. One emerging area of concern has been complaint mechanisms to the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council (CBSC) for objectionable content. Streaming services currently fall under the CBSC’s new media exemption order. The ability of the CBSC to regulate foreign video providers such as Netflix is still uncertain.
Another unresolved issue is the new ISP copyright notices introduced last year for illegally downloaded content. Some American companies appear to be misusing Canada’s notice-and-notice regime to try to extort money for copyright violation. TekSavvy has reported up to 500,000 copyright violation notices a day, to the cost of several hundred thousand dollars for software alone.
Even though many of us don’t watch traditional television regularly we’re probably routinely violating some of these new copyright rules, maybe at a friend’s or social gathering. Without legal advice or guidance from the government, countless unknown individuals may have been taken advantage of, or at least intimidated under the new online copyright regime.
Part of the solution may be to support better Canadian content, and export our media around the world, emphasizing consumer choice. The other part though will probably include treatment of streaming services in a comparable way as broadcasters, and possibly even imposing taxes.
The Globe estimates that a Netflix tax could generate up to $55 million a year, or 85% of the CRTC’s annual budget. Political representatives across the spectrum have shied away for now from a Netflix tax, though it was raised in the 2014 Federal Budget. The revenue problem may not need a new tax though, but rather a mechanism to collect on the purchase of online media through companies not formally registered in Canada.
Canadian consumers will readily pay for quality content if it is provided with convenience and adequate autonomy. Companies provided the privilege of offering these services for a profit should be the focus of any new regulations introduced.
The appropriate balance between protecting copyright and promoting consumer choice may involve cooperation with ISPs and streaming providers to regulate their activities, rather than allowing intellectual property owners to go after members of the public directly.
Members of the public until May 20, 2016 to address the online pre-consultation questionnaire. The questionnaire allows users to participate as a consumer or a stakeholder, and takes only a few minutes to complete.