Here’s my hasty list of Top 10 new media Cancon issues, in no special order.
1 – Technology agnosticism. This was a good approach to policymaking under the Broadcasting Act. Not anymore, because the Internet has got absolutely nothing to do with broadcasting. You can twist that into a pretzel, but interactive, on-demand video, in a medium where personal messaging is still the most popular activity, isn’t broadcasting. That’s exactly what the Commission was telegraphing in its call for a national digital strategy: the old definitions don’t work.
2 – The mass media paradigm. We’ve always treated our cultural industries like mass media, because that’s what they are. But the Internet isn’t and public policy should take that as its starting point. This isn’t a value judgment, that’s just the way it is, based on what real people really do online.
3 – Cable, our chosen cultural instrument. It may have been a stroke of policy genius to let cable be the undisputed TV gatekeeper for so many years. Now we’re paying the price by allowing the incumbents to continue in their gatekeeping role. On March 10, at the new media hearings, Rogers debuted its idea for a Canadian broadband video portal (see paras 9628 ff). You let us stay in charge of all things video online and we’ll welcome Cancon with open arms. Of course, Canadian audiences won’t be able to see the stuff unless they’re paying the unregulated rate to be a cable-TV sub. And even if they do pay, they’ll have the bandwidth to get all those great, hi-def production values when a very hot place freezes over.
4 – Market distortions and Cancon. The flowering of Cancon would have been impossible without serious policy intervention, given the market distortions. We now need a completely different kind of intervention. Because the more we meddle with the Internet, the more new market distortions we’ll create. This isn’t ideology. The Internet runs on a set of engineering design principles that happen to have spurred an outpouring of innovation – principles summed up in the idea of a “dumb platform.” The people that brought you smart networks (as in voice telephony) are the Bellheads. I haven’t noticed a lot of innovations from Sympatico recently, or ever.
5 – A role for video games. After living for decades inside our broadcasting system, some of us find it hard to imagine life without it. Old habits die hard – especially when they’ve brought tangible benefits. Now the time has come to ask hard questions about how and where we’ll find benefits from interactive digital media. I think our policy problems need to be looked at in terms of a transitional strategy. For example: I’ve made a living writing TV. How can I make a living writing video games? My example isn’t random. Canadians spent a record $2.09 billion on video-game consoles, games and accessories in 2008, and year-over year growth was 23%, according to the CBC. The Entertainment Software Association of Canada says the entertainment software industry is the fastest growing industry in the world, outpacing both music and movies.
6 – New media policymaking. Politicians get little mileage out of being bleeding-edge cultural champions, and their officials act accordingly. Having labored over a 100-pp study of Canada’s new media industry a few years ago, I have little faith in the ability of federal officials to predict the Next Big Thing on the Web. In my interviews with people in the business, I encountered a great deal of cynicism about the New Media Fund. And heard a lot of people say: Ottawa is always several business cycles behind the industry.
7 – Audience demand and legislative populism. Which brings us to what Canadians actually want to see on their TV, computer and cellphone screens. For all its populist ring, the Broadcasting Policy for Canada (s.3 of the Act) is the work of Beltway mandarins with good intentions and no interest in actual audience behavior. Yes, yes, I know we had to stem the tide of American cultural imperialism. But in doing so, we kept looking after the supply side and getting around to the demand side as an afterthought. We may be about to make the same mistake all over again in new media. Only this time, the audience isn’t captive and it ain’t gonna sit still while Ottawa decides what’s good for them.
8 – Cultural policy vs industrial policy. For Canadian policy wonks, one of life’s great challenges has been to distinguish what’s good for our culture, a pretty amorphous notion, from what’s good for the culture producers and the industries they work in. The whole new media thing has badly fogged up the distinction, not that it was ever clear-cut.
We need to start asking questions about appropriate policy goals in the digital age. Do we want to use public resources to shore up our national cultural sovereignty? No thanks. How about measures that help create good jobs for certain sectors of the economy – like entertainment? Sure, as long as we do away with the whole idea of taxing ISPs as BDUs and putting their money in some pot or other, even if the Federal Court of Appeal comes back with a “yes” answer to the Commission’s reference. Why? Because, as with the LPIF levy, the BDUs will pass it right along to their hapless customers. A levy on our incumbent broadband ISPs, whatever amount is involved, however noble its purpose, would also be the worst kind of regressive tax. Poorer Canadians, the very ones who need low prices to move up the broadband food chain, will be hit hardest. How is that good public policy?
9 – Competition and Internet gatekeeping. Then there’s the larger question of whether Canada will ever find its way out of the mess created by the “market forces” ideology in the communications industries. It took hold in Ottawa as the WTO was getting the world to sign up for PCR: privatization, competition and regulation. It’s ironic. Public support and deep intervention are considered absolutely critical in the cultural industries; in telecommunications, however, it’s strictly hands-off. Well, time for a change. Media audiences are now media consumers and need reasonable protections. That’s convergence in action. And if we want to get new media wares into Canadian living rooms, we need to start looking at radical new ideas for connectivity – e.g. letting other people own the networks, like municipalities. This ain’t socialism. Even the OECD thinks that’s a good idea (pdf).
10 – Embracing open platforms. Which brings us to the biggest, toughest and most important idea of all: how to apply progressive thinking not only to industrial and cultural policy, but to social policy as well. The Internet is for everyone – in theory. Canada badly needs that national digital strategy to help ensure everyone gets more than crumbs from Industry Canada’s broadband aspirations, whatever they may be. That’s a whole other conversation, for another conference.