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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ridiculous CRTC CanCon Proposal Blows Logic to Bits

A cabal of film and television writers, directors, and producers has urged the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission to levy a monthly fee through ISP's in order to protect Canadian online content from drowning in a sea of foreign "programming." Sadly, the CRTC is listening. The country's largest Internet providers, including Rogers, Shaw, and Quebecor, are unanimously opposed to the levy, which would create a $100 million fund to help produce Canadian-based Internet "programming".

CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein reacted sternly to the ISPs' suggestion that the fee might be unlawful.

It is, of course, more of the same type of over-regulation we've seen in this vein. And in connection with online "programming," it's a baffling demand.

Protecting culture by levying fees through the providers of the pipes essentially takes the vested interests of one protected industry and asks ordinary consumers to pay to keep them in business. And it hurts the private sector, too. The Internet service providers are standing around minding their own business, and they get hit with this. As shamelessly oligopolistic as the big guys are, they don't deserve it. And they're also right to point out it hurts smaller ISP's.

Incoherent government policy as a whole is ultimately to blame for the techno-incompetence of our leading regulators and decisionmakers. Canada surely does need to support domestic "programming." In C++, Python, Java, Ruby on Rails, PHP, and the rest. Subsidies are worth funneling into infrastructure and incentives to support innovation, productivity, and digital culture. While particular interests jockey for handouts, the broader strategy languishes.

What if no one wants to watch the programming that gets made? Note to CanCon Programming Industry Goofballs: the Internet doesn't have fixed "channels." So I guess you'll have to raise more funds to have a device to control our mouse hands, and another yet to shove the programs down our throats.

I hope the CRTC listens to the well-reasoned arguments of the beleaguered ISP's. But for this absurd discussion to even get to this stage is a sad statement.

I'm no rabid free market advocate. But to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff, and the other party leaders Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe: I call for you to begin working on a long term project of ridding ourselves of the buildup of irrational assumptions, petty taxes, fees, and regulations, that detract from the positive work government and business could be doing to move us forward into a dynamic (and equitable) future. In other words, time to get out the loofah and slough off some of that stuff.

The thing about it is: I also agree with Richard Florida that cultural and creative industries can be incredibly dynamic and add value and wealth to a region. How they get built and supported is a complex matter. We start by supporting infrastructure and economic growth and development in the mega-regions, and we stop wasting tax dollars propping up the "spatial fix" of a past era. We don't get there by holding the most productive people (and taxpayers and consumers) hostage to the demands of particular industries. We're already doing that with the auto bailout: that's bad enough.

On the surface, it would seem that the federal antagonism towards "arts funding" has already gone too far. It's tough to support that general nastiness when you're hoping to fit in with urban sophisticates. But shouldn't those sophisticates be looking at how we can support a dynamic creative economy across the board, rather than a "barnacle industry" that depends on funding to support elite-tilted cultural production? (As Florida himself attempted to show in his earlier work, talent and ultimately economic development are attracted to regions not by operas or Olympic venues, but by widespread cultural scenes encompassing music, bars, streetscape, parks, festivals of many stripes, fashion, and chaotic, diverse development that couldn't feasibly be subsidized directly.)

So about Prime Minister Harper and his nasty friends who cut back "arts funding" -- perhaps they're onto something. If I had my way, they'd put the money back - in a relevant way. But where they and other political leaders go from there is very much in question.

Said Mr. Harper, who only just yesterday made a speech stating that Canada is the best positioned nation to thrive as the global economies recover, is dangerously close to lapsing into complacency... into not challenging us to do better. "Best positioned" -- based on what? Our relatively unscathed, conservative banking system? Our relative fiscal prudence during the years the U.S. spent itself into a multitrillion dollar debt hole? Indeed.

But to become a truly dynamic economy, we've got to start choosing sides; someone's got to tell the usual cabal of grant-seeking "writers, directors, and producers" (and their ilk) that they'll have to fend for themselves -- either that or shrink radically (like Chrysler). And leaders like Mr. Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty need to start taking seriously reports like a recent one produced by the Rotman School of Management (authored by the school's dean, Roger Martin, and Prof. Richard Florida), that provided a roadmap for a transition to a knowledge economy. We can't give money to everyone, for every purpose. As the CRTC proposal shows, to raise that magical money, you either have to print it, or slap a fee on your poor Aunt Millie's already-inflated cable bill. If that's the same Aunt Millie who is supposedly clamoring to defend the ratio of CanCon vs. Other-Con, or her nephew's cool job at the film production company... isn't it ironic? Don't you think? Too bad about the ratio of 6,000 other Aunt Millies to every one Cancon-benefitting-nephew-Aunt-Millie need to send in their buck-fifty too, even though their nephew has no such job.

The "Cancon cabal," of course, could care less. If they cared, maybe they'd be spending more time advocating for general policy improvements that create solid conditions for cultural industry growth. To come out with a demand that a regulator hang that responsibility on ISP's and their customers, and to wildly equate the wants-to-be-neutral-and-open IP-based platform with a "TV programming" scenario, nakedly and cynically short-circuits that process.

South of the border, President Obama is appointing CTO's, CIO's, forward-thinking FCC Chairmen, and injecting a whole new energy into the digital atmosphere. In Canada, anything less than a full overhaul of our thinking about digital culture and productivity -- anything less than our government leaders speaking up and demanding a sea change in attitude as well as fiscal and regulatory priorities -- dooms us to continued mediocrity. So what's it going to be? Innovation and support for the entrepreneurial, digital faces of the future? Or equating our national interest with the same old tightly-knit group of outstretched hands, self-appointing themselves the defenders of "our" culture?

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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