Listening to the debate between the CRTC and Canada’s major internet service providers (news here, here, and here) during recent public hearings is a bit like overhearing a pair of Luddites discuss how the tiny people in computers make the World Wide Web work. ISPs such as Rogers and Bell continue to argue they provide nothing more than a “dumb pipe” through which web content imperceptibly flows (even though they’ve been “smart” enough to throttle BitTorrent downloads on smaller ISPs such as TekSavvy) and shouldn’t therefore be expected to provide funds for the promotion of Canadian culture online.
Yet it’s hard to sympathize with the CRTC’s plan for a three per cent levy on Canadian ISP revenues. This method of allocating money to promote relevant, Canadian cultural material makes sense for cable television, which requires millions of dollars in capital and a CRTC license to secure a station. But levying ISPs to support Canadian content on the web, with its millions of user-generated blogs, news sites, multi-platform video and music sharing software, and often nothing more than Google AdSense separating amateur content-provider from professional, raises a few questions: how would an ISP be able to detect “trace amounts of Atwood,” as Globe and Mail columnist Ivor Tossell put it? Is broadband “packet-inspection” technology sufficient to identify Canadian content? Or should the CRTC stick to monitoring ISP-provided on-demand video? How would levy funds be allocated? Would levy money be pooled into a grant for Canadian content providers?
Remarks made by both sides this past week don’t inspire faith those questions are going to be answered in an intelligent, practical way any time soon. Rogers countered the levy proposal with plans for a Hulu-type video content channel that would only be available to Rogers cable subscribers (negating the need for an additional CanCon levy but requiring viewers to subscribe to Rogers Cable TV). CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein proposed using the dot-ca domain as a means of identifying Canadian web content (an idea that is ludicrously out of whack with how domain names work—see Michael Geist on the subject).
Asides like these have reduced the debate and its implications for ISPs and Canadian internet users to a muddle of on-the-spot proposals, jaw-dropping ignorance about the complex nature of the internet, and litigation threats—several ISPs have already stated they will challenge any CRTC levy in court for violating the Broadcast Act. Meanwhile problems of copyright, cultural content, and artist remuneration remain unresolved. Both ISPs and the CRTC will have to move beyond “the internet is not a big truck” stage before we can expect some realistic, industry-led solutions to these challenges.