BTLR panel releases its “What We Heard Report”

The Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel's "What We Heard Report" says there was widespread agreement that sales tax and Canadian content quotas should be imposed on foreign digital platforms.

The Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel has released its What We Heard Report reflecting feedback gathered during its consultations into the modernization of Canada’s communications legislation.

It’s also released the submissions the panel received, which are now available online. In response to its Call for Comments, 2,085 letters and written submissions were recorded.

Among the report’s takeaways are that there was widespread agreement that there need to be ongoing funding incentives to bridge the urban/rural broadband divide; that sales tax and Canadian content requirements be applied equitably to foreign digital players; that digital platforms should be subject to regulation; and that any regulatory responsibility changes should not be undertaken lightly or without the backing of sound public policy.

The report is broken down into four themes:

Telecommunications

“The submissions made it clear that an important objective of telecommunications regulation is to ensure that all Canadians have affordable access to high-quality networks now and in the future. However, there was significant debate over how to achieve this goal,” the report states.

The panel says many submissions highlighted the challenges in obtaining access to broadband in rural and remote communities (including Indigenous communities), saying parties generally agreed there is insufficient incentive for private-sector players to make investments to close the gap between service and price levels between rural and urban centres. The panel says most parties agreed broadband infrastructure investment in rural and remote regions will require continued subsidization, with many calling on government to develop a National Broadband Strategy to bring together support programs currently administered separately by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) and the CRTC, and provide ongoing, stable funding.

The panel says there was also widespread agreement among public interest groups and the general public that net neutrality principles be reflected in telecommunications legislation.

Canadian content

On the Canadian content issue, the panel says the loss of ad and subscription revenue by traditional broadcasters, prompted many calls for more equitable treatment of new players like foreign digital platforms and internet service providers (ISPs).

“They therefore recommended expanding the legislative and regulatory framework for Canadian content funding (for example, Canadian programming requirements and contributions to the Canada Media Fund [CMF]) to include these new players. This could be achieved through a licensing system, binding agreements or regulations with administrative monetary penalties (AMPs),” states the report.

For their part, foreign digital platforms commented that they are already investing in production and talent in Canada and contributing to the country’s creative ecosystem. Some submitted that funding for Canadian content should come directly from the government rather than being subsidized by industry revenues.

Several content creators and producers submitted that given that ISPs benefit from increased consumption of audio and audiovisual content online, they should contribute to the creation of Cancon. ISPs rebutted that would be unfair because internet use is not limited to the dissemination of content. In their view, the contribution of ISPs should be limited to building the networks that provide access to Canadian content.

The panel says almost all parties advocated to apply sales taxes equitably between Canadian and foreign companies even though the issue is outside the scope of the communications legislative framework. They submitted this would put an end to the competitive disadvantage currently faced by Canadian companies, which also have obligations with respect to the creation and distribution of Canadian content.

The majority of parties also recommended maintaining Canadian regulations on ownership and control of the broadcasting system while imposing binding obligations on foreign companies to support the creation and distribution of Canadian content.

Discoverability of Canadian content in the new digital ecoverse was also cited as an  important issue to be addressed in the new legislative framework.

Social harm in a digital environment

With digital platforms holding vast amounts of Canadians’ personal data, some parties indicated that the digital platforms should be subject to regulation including the CRTC, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) and the Competition Bureau.

“A number of interested parties submitted that communications regulation should have a role in ensuring the provision of accurate, independent and trusted news and information, and that legislation should include a policy objective to this end. Some parties suggested that the quality of online journalism would be increased if standards-setting models similar to those established for broadcast journalism (such as the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council) were to be adopted,” the report states.

With digital algorithms also exhibiting considerable power over what news and information is presented to Canadians, the panel says some submissions called for more transparency in the curation process and that digital platforms be subject to regulatory oversight. Providers of digital platforms submitted that they were committed to the free flow of information but were also taking steps to stem the flow of misinformation online.

Regulatory framework

Currently, regulatory responsibilities for the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors are divided among the CRTC, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Minister of Industry and the Governor-in-Council. The panel heard a variety of opinions concerning the effectiveness of current regulatory authorities and their respective responsibilities. The panel says many submissions suggested changing organizational responsibilities would represent a major disruption and, therefore, should not be undertaken lightly or without sound public policy reasons.

Among those advocating for change, suggestions included giving Canadian Heritage more direct responsibility over the regulation of broadcasting activities; and a reallocation of authority and responsibility for the management of spectrum from the Minister of Industry to an independent regulatory body, with some proposing the CRTC specifically as an appropriate body.

The panel says other parties expressed concern that the powers provided to the Governor-in-Council to issue policy directions and hear appeals of specific decisions in the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act allow Cabinet to undermine the overall policy objectives in the Acts set out by Parliament.

The panel also heard suggestions that the CRTC needs to be more diverse in not only reflecting geographical and linguistic diversity, but that the commission include representation from Indigenous communities, official language minority communities, and community TV and radio.

The panel will now focus on completing its final report, with recommendations for legislative change to be delivered to government by Jan. 31, 2020.


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