The Trudeau government is being urged to quickly reform Canada’s broadcasting and telecom legislation by an expert panel tasked with overhauling the system for the 21st century.
The panel’s recommendations, released Wednesday in a 235-page report, would give the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission sweeping new powers and responsibilities, including oversight of foreign streaming services.
“The single most important message to convey on behalf of Canadians is one of urgency,” Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel chairwoman Janet Yale wrote in the introduction to the report.
“I encourage your government to move promptly to consider this report and engage with Canadians to implement the necessary changes to ensure that Canada is positioned for success.”
The report is the result of 18 months of consultations and research by Yale and the other members of the panel.
The ministers responsible for broadcasting and telecommunications said they would consider the 97 recommendations and act “as quickly as possible” to modernize the legislative framework.
“Reforms are needed to level the playing field on which conventional broadcasters and digital media companies compete,” Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault and Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, science, and industry said in a joint statement.
“We recognize that, for Canada’s culture to keep flourishing and for our economy to keep growing, we need to ensure that Canada’s telecommunications and broadcasting landscape is properly aligned with today’s digital age.”
The ministers, who are not legally required to adopt any of the recommendations in the panel’s “Time to Act” report, didn’t provide a timetable in their statement.
Daniel Bernhard, executive director of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said in an interview that the government can either take the panel’s recommendations seriously or “dawdle” and pretend there isn’t an urgent problem.
“The government had very similar recommendations put to it in 2018,” he said. “They punted it for 18 months into this panel. We’re now out of time and out of excuses. It’s time to move.”
Some of the recommendations are relatively simple — such as renaming the Broadcasting and Telecommunications acts, as well as the CRTC — while others will be contentious and politically difficult.
For example, the Liberal government has been under pressure to require a growing number of foreign companies — such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple — fund Canadian content.
At the same time, the Liberals have also promised to make telecommunications services more affordable for consumers while ensuring they get wide access to content from outside Canada.
The panel, for its part, recommends giving the CRTC a broader mandate, more regulatory powers and a continued role in balancing the various factors through a new Media Communications Act and a new Electronic Communications Act.
For instance, the report says the CRTC should be responsible for a new registration process for internet companies such as Netflix that distribute media content in Canada, whether the provider is domestic or foreign.
“Under this approach, any media content undertaking with significant Canadian revenues and delivering media content by means of the internet would be required to register,” the report says.
The reports says the registration process, much like licensing, would give the CRTC powers to collect fees at a corporate level rather than on the consumer side.
The new registration regime, to be administered by the CRTC, would require online streaming services that benefit from operating in Canada to invest in programming that will “attract and appeal to Canadians.”
Yale told reporters at an Ottawa press conference that foreign companies would agree to the registration process out of “commercial necessity.”
“Right now, it’s easy for them to be in Canada because they have no obligations. And we’re saying … if you benefit from operating in a Canadian system, you should contribute.”
Meanwhile, Canada’s private-sector broadcasters and distribution companies — such as BCE’s Bell, Rogers, Quebecor’s Videotron — would be required contribute to Canadian content through a more flexible licensing regime.
“This approach would ensure a meaningful contribution to Canadian cultural policy objectives and the production sector. It need not result in higher prices for consumers,” the report says.
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On a separate but confusingly similar issue — sales taxes — the panel recommends that Ottawa immediately require foreign streaming services to join their domestic rivals in collecting GST/HST and sending the money to the government.
The report says Australia, countries in the European Union and the provinces of Quebec and Saskatchewan already collect sales or value-added taxes on streaming services sold in their jurisdictions.
Recommendations from the report include:
— amend the Broadcasting Act (Media Communications Act) to require the federal government to provide five-year funding commitments to the federal broadcaster, the CBC/Radio-Canada.
— remove the specific reference to radio and television in CBC/Radio-Canada’s mandate, so a broader range of media content is included.
— eliminate advertising on any of the CBC/Radio Canada platforms over the next five years, starting with news content.
— give the CRTC sole jurisdiction to mandate and establish terms and conditions of access to wholesale wireless services.
— assign the CRTC the explicit responsibility for the administration of databases related to the functioning and location of telecommunications networks.
— create a more consistent, transparent, and predictable process for appeals of individual CRTC decisions to the federal cabinet.
CRTC chairman Ian Scott issued a brief statement acknowledging the report, without getting into details.
“At first glance, it is clear that the panel recognizes that fundamental changes need to occur to fully enable the CRTC to act in the public interest,” Scott said.
“We look forward to future legislative changes to effectively fulfil our mandate in this new environment.”
— with files from Victoria Ahearn in Toronto and Teresa Wright in Ottawa.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2020.