In terms of broadcasting, the core justifications for the CRTC’s current last-century policies are based, as Dr. Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa points out in his BTLR submission, on the allocation of scarce resources to maximize cultural benefit. But: “The broadcast world of scarcity has given way to a world of abundance, however, with no channel limits nor restrictions on the ability for anyone to ‘broadcast’ or distribute their content to a national or international audience. The regulatory world therefore no longer needs to rely on the policies of scarcity.“
For its part, telecommunications policy has been agnostic on content — people have always been able to speak freely over the telephone to individuals or groups — and has instead focused on such consumer issues as service, availability, affordability and competitor access. Those goals form a sound basis for a new communications act that would put citizens’ interests front-and-centre within a single entity directed by a single minister to replace the current two-headed monster governed by the disparate ambitions of the Heritage Ministry and the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.
Which brings us to publishers. They, like broadcasters, perform the useful function of content aggregation. In their efforts to do so in a compelling fashion, they work as gatekeepers, selecting preferred content and, after editing it, posting it. When they do so, when they select and shape content, they assume responsibility for it — on the internet or otherwise.
Social media platforms do not perform this function, as American courts have ruled. Being private entities, they may set guidelines such as no nudity in photos. And individual posts are subject to the laws of the land — criminal and civil. But the very reason they and other aspects of the internet are both attractive and liberating is that people have a platform that allows them to speak their mind beyond the kept gates and, in doing so, to assume the liabilities that go with it.
Twitter or Facebook can enact whatever policies they believe are in their own best interests to shut down bad subscriber behaviour. But at the end of the day they should no more be held legally responsible for the post of a hateful comment than a telephone company should be held to account because someone used its network to phone in a threat.
Both the BTLR panel and whoever is governing Canada in 2020 would be wise to keep these fundamentals in mind if they are serious about building a regulatory framework suited to this century and not the one they were born in.
Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC. Though he advises tech companies on regulatory policy the views expressed here are his own.
© Financial Post