Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Is the CRTC independent, or isn't it?

Unlike the US FCC which answers only to the President but in fact acts at arms length from the government, the Canadian equivalent -- the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, is at best a quasi-judicial panel. Moreover, while FCC decisions can be appealed in the courts, rulings from the CRTC can be appealed to the federal Cabinet.

Given how much previous and current governments have interfered with the regulators these past few years, according to the Canadian Press, it's little wonder there aren't many people lining up for the job of Chair. Or maybe it's because the gang in Hull simply don't get just how fast their jobs are becoming totally irrelevant in the marketplace.

Consider, for example, the recent Cabinet dictate that overturned the CRTC's ruling on VoIP -- the one that said alternate suppliers had to have at least 25% market share before they would consider allowing the traditional telcos to charge what they felt appropriate. It was a harebrained idea to begin with, because it's possible to use VoIP for free if you know how to download the proper software and have a high speed connection. The problem, however, is why the Cabinet got involved at all in the first place. The CRTC is trying to foster competition and as thanks they're told, screw you, we'll let the telcos smack down the cable companies and alternate suppliers.

Frankly, the 25% threshold was way too high -- I probably would have set it at half that -- but even then a partisan Cabinet is hardly the ideal forum to settle disputes. It should be left for another independent group, like the courts, to see if the CRTC broke its own rules or violated the laws of equity in establishing new ones.

In some other areas, however, the CRTC has just abdicated its responsibilities all together and in that respect has gone in the completely opposite direction from the FCC. Unlike its southern neighbour which cracked down on so-called "indecency," the attitude here is laissez-faire; with "regulation" being off-loaded to the private broadcasters themselves through something called the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council while the CBC has its in-house Ombusdmen (one each for the French and English networks, with the power of the "other" to get involved in case of a conflict of interest). As a result, the boundary gets pushed back to the point where now it's anything goes after nine PM Eastern -- all the violence, gore and explicit sex the networks can throw at us.

The problem, as the Canadian Press points out, is that getting involved so directly as both Paul Martin and Stephen Harper have done, is that it undermines accountability -- and the ability of Canadians to point to who to blame for an irresponsible decision. Furthermore, as far as the airwaves go, it implies that the electromagnetic spectrum is the property of the Crown. It is not. It is owned by the people and leased to licensed operators in the hopes the public trust will not be abused.

I'm not saying get rid of the CRTC. We still need it to make sure broadcasters are playing by the rules. But its decisions should be a matter for the courts, not the politicians. The job of the politicians is to reduce the regulatory burden and ensuring that competition is fair -- no more or less.

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1 comment:

Miles Lunn said...

I generally agree here. I think if the government dislikes a particular ruling, they can change the regulations since my understanding is the CRTC can only act in areas it is allowed to regulate and governments decide this.