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Peter Menzies: Don't mess with the internet — especially at a time when we need it more than ever
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Peter Menzies: Don't mess with the internet — especially at a time when we need it more than ever

Written by
Peter Menzies
Published by
 Financial Post
April 21st, 2020

Policy-makers need to pause, breathe deeply, think wisely and make sure Canada’s first priority is a strong and unfettered internet.

To the extent there is still a functioning economy in Canada, we can thank the internet for ensuring millions of us can work from home and hang onto our jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Were it not for the widespread availability of this remarkable tool, far more of us would be crying out for government income assistance while pleading with our debtors for mortgage and other deferrals. For that matter, how would we even know about or apply for relief were it not for the internet, this marvellous new technology that over the past quarter century has become vital to meeting the needs of Canadians?

The answer is that we wouldn’t. And it’s quite possible that were it not for the development of this unfettered network, far more of us would still be spreading the COVID-19 virus through workplaces we couldn’t avoid thanks to bills we couldn’t neglect. Little more than a generation ago, when few of us had a personal computer, let alone a laptop, iPhone or network on which to send and receive data, our current reaction to this existential threat simply would not have been possible. But thanks to the internet we are capable of the current levels of economic activity during self-isolations that so far appear to be significantly diminishing the nevertheless grim impact of the pandemic.

The online world has also entertained us in our confinement. So much so that providers such as Netflix have at times reduced streaming quality to meet demand as people twirl away idle hours waiting for the signal that it is now safe to go out a little, sort of, maybe and risk taking the kids to a playground. Crazy, eh?

As the prime minister has made clear, the return to that life — if and when it comes — isn’t happening any time soon. This is not a time, then, to be toying with the vitality of that which sustains us by rewriting broadcasting and telecommunications law, as promised this spring by Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. As largely envisioned by the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Review panel report earlier this year, Mr. Guilbeault has committed to give the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) sweeping new powers to fetter the internet by regulating its content and imposing fees and levies (i.e. taxes) on both providers and subscribers in order to advance the cause of Canadian content production.

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This was always going to be a risky move. But after the past few weeks it has never been more obvious that, though “broadcasting” does occur on the internet, the internet is much, much more than a plaything. Far from being just “the new cable,” the internet is a magnificent, free and open industrial, social, economic, cultural and commercial marketplace.

Moreover, regulatory interference with it in order to support a mythical crisis in Canadian screen production is based on a complete misunderstanding of the facts. Lost in the madness of the past two weeks, the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) released its report on the state of the industry through 2019. It shows that total film and television production in Canada grew last year by an impressive 5.8 per cent to $9.3 billion — an all-time high. There was growth in every sector while Canadian film and television content production grew eight per cent to $3.22 billion. TV was up seven per cent to $2.89 billion while film was up fully 25 per cent to $337 million. English-language production was up six per cent, French-language production 13.6 per cent.

This means that over the past 10 years, during which regulators and policy-makers wisely took a laissez-faire approach to internet content, the film and television production industry in Canada has not struggled, as a handful of self-serving but influential activists insist, but has prospered, growing by 85 per cent. According to the CMPA report, by the end of 2019 the on-screen sector was supporting 180,900 full-time equivalent jobs and producing $12.8 billion in GDP. When it comes to the fallacy of a crisis in Canadian broadcasting, the numbers are in, the science is settled.

Now more than ever, policy-makers need to pause, breathe deeply, think wisely and make sure Canada’s first priority is a strong and unfettered internet.

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a past CRTC vice-chair of telecommunications.

© Financial Post

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