Rebooting basic services: hope for policy reform? (2)

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New ideas for policy reform from Bell

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Update on other reactions to Turcke/Bell (1:10pm): Pete Nowak has his own biting critique in yesterday’s post – If VPN use is theft, then Bell’s CraveTV is extortion. And over at OpenMedia.ca, Josh Tabish has stirred up some really unfriendly reactions on Facebook about the whole fiasco – 181 315 and counting. (When I showed the FP article to my teenage daughter, her eye-rolling reaction was, OMG, as if using a VPN is hacking.)

As I suggested in my last post, some of the conclusions reached at the Rebooting conference will be echoed in the current CRTC proceeding on basic service objectivesDespite all the compelling reasons for reform, however, numerous barriers stand in the way. Some of those discussed at the conference will certainly play a continuing role in the broadband proceeding…

1 – No political will or vision. Short of improbable legislative change, we need something the Harper government is incapable of formulating: a national digital strategy. The CRTC suggested the need for a national strategy six years ago in its new media decision (2009-329, para 78). What we got from the Tories instead was a lousy marketing brochure. Even the opposition parties seem to regard our broadband future as unworthy of serious attention.

2 – Jobs (and money) trump change. Some Rebooting speakers argued that depriving broadcasters of financial support was unacceptable because that would put their constituents out of work. While that observation is undoubtedly true, it confirms the point I made in my previous post: the cultural objectives for broadcasting function as a disguise for a job creation policy. This determination to protect vested interests is, of course, shared by the biggest firms. And when creative lobbies and vertically integrated conglomerates make common cause to keep the “ATM” money flowing through the system, you know there’s a problem.

3 – CBC nostalgia. People of good will have been fighting for the CBC almost as long as it’s been around. Back in the 1980s I was a staff consultant to the Caplan-Sauvageau Task Force on Broadcasting Policy. It produced a mammoth tome (731 pp) that included a chapter on the CBC, written I recall by yours truly. Among the sensible reforms it called for was five-year statutory funding, a reformist goal much discussed in the intervening decades and never further from realization. For some, the only meaningful reform of our system would be a return to the glory days of public broadcasting. Sadly, this discussion draws attention away from more pressing reform issues – and no government is ever going to “fix” the CBC anyway.

4 – Demonizing US culture. The more that mainstream Canadians embrace US entertainment, the more our leaders warn us the sky is falling on our cultural sovereignty. People obsessed about Netflix at the conference, as though we’d just discovered a reason to resent TV from south of the border. Ah but we’ve been here before, including the period in the 1990s when Ted Rogers tried to stir alarm over the “Deathstar” direct-to-home satellites beaming down in all their un-Canadian glory. Then as now, this Chicken Little line of patter has been designed not for high-minded achievements like protecting our Canadian identity (whatever that is), but to protect the agenda that keeps Canadian firms from having to face meaningful competition. The Netflix “tax” may be gone, but the sentiment behind it is alive and well (see next).

5 – Sacrificing privacy, and reform, at the altar of licensing rights. Another attack on America – and Canadians – came yesterday in a piece of disinformation about VPNs, courtesy of Mary Ann Turcke (she who replaced Mr “I can censor my own news if I want to”). At Bell, we learn, privacy and security are expendable, provided no Canadian ever gets into the Netflix US library using a VPN. Ms Turcke is convinced that using a VPN to disguise one’s location is evil, while accessing Netflix’s U.S. video library “is otherwise off-limits to Canadian subscribers.” That, she says, is like throwing garbage out a car window – another cute metaphor in a long line of anti-American rabble-rousing.

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Artist’s rendering of what Netflix hath wrought

Caution, rant ahead…

The nonsense inherent in this mantra is barely worth comment (I wrote about Netflix and VPNs in January – It’s 2015: Cancon is the aberration, not VPNs or the Internet). But there are other aspects of this behavior that make Bell look even worse – and I’m not talking about Turcke’s groundless legal logic or the unusual idea of publicly shaming her own 15-year-old daughter to attack her unseen enemies (I can only imagine how my teen daughter would react if subjected to such treatment). I refer to the hypocritical appeal to saving industry jobs and Bell’s stunning lack of vision.

Our TV industry leaders have always leaned on flag-waving and false populism to keep competition away. Right on cue, the FP report suggests that the really poignant outcome of the big Netflix cheat is putting Canadians out of jobs: “the livelihoods of 125,000 people in this country’s production industry are at stake – and ‘nobody here works for free.‘” That sentiment is exactly what I flagged in item #2 above as a major barrier to reform – and yet so much worse coming from Bell, which will sack staff in a heartbeat if it makes Bay St happy. I’d love for Bell’s bean counters to tell us just how many jobs have been lost thanks to all that relentless VPN “hacking.” 

Which brings us to the vision thing. Turcke’s grandstanding is Bell’s third kick at the VPN can by my count (first back in February and again three days ago from Mirko Bibic). That’s a bad sign, given how desperately Bell wants to be in the content business. Using keynote opportunities to compare customers to litterbugs suggests Bell doesn’t know the slightest thing about how to be in the online content business. Turcke does give the habitual nod to making it easy for consumers to find content (as if Bell makes anything easy). But that’s not good enough. If all Bell’s leaders can offer is attacking its own staff on one hand (Crull), and attacking its own customers on the other (Turcke), it should stick to the dumb pipe business, emphasis on dumb.

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(If you’re shopping for a good VPN service, look at WiTopia or Private Internet Access. If you plan to use them to indulge in Bell-unfriendly moral turpitude, knock yourself out.)

D.E.