Canada's next great CRTC chair
Canada has a new CRTC chair: Jean Pierre Blais. This five-year-long government appointment is set to take effect June 18. We wish Blais the best of luck in his new position, and hope that he will in fact turn out to be a champion of a strong digital future for Canada.
We were hoping to publish this blog post before the decision was made, but here’s a now-somewhat-late rundown of the contenders who could have been chair: in addition to the somewhat-unknown Jean Pierre Blais, interim chair Len Katz, and commissioners Tom Pentefountas and Timothy Denton had applied for the position.
I should note before proceeding that this write-up is flavoured by the bias I’ve gained in my capacity as Communications Manager here at OpenMedia.ca. We strongly believe that the best guarantee of an open Internet is policy-makers who value processes that are open, citizen-centered, and public-interest oriented. We also feel that the criteria for appointments to the CRTC should include significant experience in the public interest or consumer advocacy community.
Jean Pierre Blais
UPDATE: Check out the government's backgrounder on Blais here.
Jean Pierre Blais is a lawyer by training and recently served as an executive director at the CRTC. While working for the CRTC, Blais also took on an Assistant Deputy Minister position in the Department of Canadian Heritage. It’s this position, alongside his strong relationship with Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, which has led critics to worry that Blais would be overly compliant with the Conservative government’s policy leanings, and fail to take the bold steps necessary to fix Canada’s broken telecom market.
In March of last year, Blais spoke about the transition to digital television. His statements indicated that he put a great deal of trust in broadcasters to inform Canadians about the transition; this while concerns remained about Big Telecom using the digital transition to mislead Canadians into subscribing paid services.
In an interview with CBC’s The National, Blais also indicated a lack of understanding of the threats of conglomeration as he spoke about CTV’s acquisition of The Globe and Mail. He stated that increased conglomeration was important “...for Canada to position itself in the communication industry, to create strong solid players in that world marketplace”, setting aside issues around democratic media and diversity of voices. Pro-Internet community member Munly Leong describes the issue well in his blog entry on the World Broadband Foundation website: “If Bell and Rogers are run the same way they are in Canada as they would be internationally, the world can only expect to experience some of the worst overcharging and anti-competitive behaviour in the industrialized world.”
But lots of time has passed since these short statements were heard, and we do hold out hope that Blais could be the public-interest-oriented Chair that Canada needs.
"I am trying to find out what is undemocratic about the system we have right now 'allowing a few companies to control the Internet access market would be irresponsible and undemocratic'," said Pentefountas, in response to our testimony at the CRTC’s hearing on usage-based billing (Internet metering) last year.
Not a great sign.
Like Blais, Pentefountas has also been criticized for being too close to the Conservative government. Upon Pentefountas’ appointment as CRTC Vice Chair last year, NDP MP Charlie Angus told The Globe and Mail that he suspected the placement was the result of improper interference by the Prime Minister’s Office. Angus told the Globe, “..and now they [the Conservatives] have decided to appoint someone as vice-chair of a regulatory body whose only expertise in this seems to be that he ran for the ADQ and he knows [Harper spokesman] Dimitri Soudas and [Conservative Senator] Leo Housakos.”
All in all, Pentefountas wouldn’t be our first choice. But if he does win the appointment, there’s no reason he should remain insensitive to the increasingly vocal pro-Internet community.
After arguing that the CRTC’s favourable decision to give indie ISPs to access higher-speed networks did not go far enough, Denton earned the nickname—possibly just for me—“the dissentin’ Denton”. He argued that the CRTC should go further to support a vibrant and competitive Internet service market for the sake of unfettered innovation.
Denton has been with the CRTC as a commissioner since 2008, and previously served in related positions, including as a policy advisor to the Minister of Communications and as counsel to the Canadian Consumers’ Association. Perhaps most notable, he was involved in the creation of the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act, which together are the cornerstone of communications governance in Canada.
Before the CRTC’s hearing on usage-based billing (Internet metering) last summer, we didn’t have many good things to say about CRTC Vice Chair Len Katz. Katz has a total of 26 years working for Big Telecom—17 and Rogers and 11 at Bell—and had often been involved in rulings that favoured corporations’ bottom lines over the public interest.
But recent decisions, including those on usage-based billing and vertical integration, suggest that Katz has heard the pro-Internet community, and that he is now willing to put the public interest before that of telecom industry giants. He has continued to be considerate of Canadians into his current role as Acting Chairman. Based on this, we would be actually quite supportive of Katz continuing on as CRTC Chair in a more permanent capacity.
Regardless of who the CRTC Chair is, we need to ensure that they keep the public interest in mind, and listen to the voices of the hundreds of thousands of pro-Internet Canadians who seek to participate in policy-making. Join the community here.