Bram Abramson to the Digital Media at the Crossroads Conference
January 20, 2024
Bram Abramson, Commissioner for Ontario
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)
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Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for that kind introduction.
What a difference a year makes.
Last year, I was here as part of a panel that explored the role and impact of algorithms that regulate functions like playlist selection and on-screen presentation—on whether there could or should be a public oversight role for how companies deploy those algorithms, and if so, to what end. This year, I’m here as the CRTC’s Regional Commissioner for Ontario, and have been asked to update you on where things stand. More on that in a minute.
Of course, last year’s event was entirely virtual. This weekend, we are glad to be able to gather, in-person, in a city and campus perched on a crossroads that is the traditional territory of many nations—including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples— and that is the object of Treaty 13 between the Crown and the Mississaugas of the Credit. It is a privilege to be here and to be among a group of people with a passion for the activities whose markets the CRTC oversees.
As many of you know, it is a passion I share. In my case, and long before building a career as a communications lawyer, my passion was nurtured by roots developed in this city in times and contexts where anything seemed possible. Running an online Bulletin Board System connected to the global FidoNet, where lessons on content moderation and social media were everywhere. Playing with bands at Elvis Mondays back when the Drake was a dive bar with cheap beer. Getting cassette tapes ready to try and bottle, however briefly, the lightning of radio stations like the early CFNY, or CBC’s Brave New Waves, or community radio, in which I would later participate.
Then, the rise of the commercial Internet and of the Web, and early Web design along with it. The explosion in Internet traffic and its physical infrastructure. The shift in telecom regulatory anchors from a public switched telephone network to an Internet-oriented, broadband-and-mobile environment.
We are still in the throes of that shift, and of its counterpart in the area of audiovisual media. Digital technologies and the forms of cultural, personal, and democratic expression built through them continue to evolve at an ever-faster pace. So, in some ways, it still feels like anything is possible. But this is no longer the realm of hobbyists alone. The areas for which we share a passion are now at centre stage. Digital platforms drive some of the world’s biggest corporations. So, we confront a paradox. At some layers, we are more able to speak, listen, and become heard than ever before. Yet those functions are bound up in market structures in which the oligopolistic competition we were used to on the national stage is becoming rewritten on a much larger scale for a global environment.
So, we’re at a crossroads, and one that is hardly unique to Canada. We have a great deal to learn from our counterparts abroad as they grappled with very similar issues. But in some ways, we experience this crossroads more intensely than other countries might. Nowhere else than Canada has so much foreign content been available for so long as a core staple of their domestic broadcasting system.
Few places beside English Canada apply so low a “cultural discount” to content imported from abroad. That represents a rare opportunity, since the reverse is also true—which is why Canada has been so good at exporting so much content globally for many years. But competing against Hollywood, with its global reach and massive domestic economies of scale, is not easy.
Canadian creators, broadcasters, distributors, and service providers have survived—and in many cases thrived—thanks to a broad partnership governed by the rules of the road set by regulators. When that partnership has worked best, it has resulted in a shared commitment to serving and supporting Canadians in all of their roles, identities, and diversity. How best to build that partnership forward, and what rules markets may need to yield outcomes that meet the policy standards to which we hold them, is the debate we’ve been engaged in for many years. But it has sped up in the last decade. Specialty television viewing overtook tuning to what we used to call the broadcasters; now Internet-based tuning looks to outpace audiovisual content consumed through dedicated networks like those of cable and satellite providers.
How to modernize regulation has been a crossroads debate throughout, from New Media Exemption hearings, to TalkTV, to the Broadcast and Telecom Legislative Review panel, to legislative changes, to Phase 1 of the three phases that we established to carry forward the review of Canada’s broadcasting regulatory frameworks.
And, of course, the Digital Media at the Crossroads conference has been there each step of the way, as it celebrates its tenth year in a building where I held one of my first summer jobs, back in high school, as a research assistant here at the Faculty of Music and, across the park, at the Canadian Music Centre. Plus ça change.
The conversation has evolved as markets have evolved. What areas are experiencing, or are likely to experience, market failure, if any? What do changes in market power and concentration mean? Inevitably, many of the old debates are new again.
Long ago Mark Fowler, then chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, summarized his approach like this: “The public interest is what the public is interested in.” Is that all there is to it? What do viewers, and consumers, and citizens need and have a right to expect from audiovisual media markets? What content should be available to whom under what market conditions, and why wouldn’t markets achieve that on their own? The discussion around fostering a news ecosystem that supports deliberative democracy is in full swing, so how do we ensure the conversation can include consideration of both short-shelf-life and long-shelf-life content?
CRTC proceedings play an essential role in the regulatory regime. Every CRTC decision is—and is required to be—based on ideas submitted on the public record. The work to document and analyze submissions lies at the core of our regulatory system. To guide how the changes to the Broadcasting Act are implemented, the CRTC has launched a three-phase series of proceedings alongside other continuing work.
In Phase 1 of 3, we have said that media groups that earn $10 million in Canadian broadcasting revenues must fill out a registration form, and are subject to undue preference rules on fair competition. A process is underway to determine which media groups are responsible for broadcasting fees. Of course, media groups that earn $50 million in Canadian broadcasting revenues were already required to report annually as part of the data-gathering process by which we monitor the markets we regulate.
And on the broader question of modernizing our rules both on mandatory programming expenditures, in which market participants must invest in a certain amount of Canadian programming for their own use, and mandatory contributions, in which they must pay into funds, we have just wrapped up one of the longest appearing hearings in our history, with 120 individuals and organizations appearing over three weeks, and many more submitting written briefs.
I was not on that panel and will not participate in that decision. But I noted constructive discussions on how to ensure diverse, independent Canadian and Indigenous long- and short-shelf-life content, including news, from getting made; that market power doesn’t unfairly hinder this content from reaching audiences that want it; and that efficient, transparent, accessible styles of regulation make it easy to participate in markets that follow these principles.
We are reviewing all of this input, as we transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2, which will speak to issues including: the various definitions of Canadian content; consumer and audience protection; and market access and competition.
And, of course, other workstreams are underway. With new Online News Act regulations published by the Department of Canadian Heritage, we expect to launch public consultations on how to fulfil the responsibilities assigned to us under that Act.
We will likewise be launching a consultation on funding public-interest interveners, which we currently do in very different ways on the telecom and broadcasting sides. And, on the telecom side, we are continuing to transition to a fully broadband-oriented regulatory framework, including an upcoming hearing on the broadband market, and continuing work on the no less important issue of transport competition.
As a regulator, the CRTC aims to establish frameworks that will ensure Canadians have access to a diversity of music, stories and news and information programming that speaks to their realities. This means regulation if necessary—but not necessarily regulation. A wide variety of perspectives helps ensure we’re using the right instruments to achieve the right goals in line with the policy set down for us in law.
So I can’t overstate how important the input is of stakeholders, such as everyone here today. Many futures are possible. But the only tools the CRTC can make available in the marketplace are those based on evidence that has been put before us. With digital industries and our regulatory regime both at a crossroads, making sure our informal conversation here at the conference results in formal evidence filed before us is more important than ever. I look forward to our continuing conversations.
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