Canadians moved the CRTC

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Image from Kozzi Inc. on Flickr

The beginning

It started with Stop The Meter. The CRTC’s 2011 decision to allow Big Telecom to impose punitive extra fees across the entire Internet service market was the breaking point for hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have been price-gouged and bullied by their ISPs. In a short time, half-a-million pro-Internet citizens added their names to the petition at http://StopTheMeter.ca, and the fight for an open and affordable Internet started to snowball.

If you followed Stop The Meter, you know that the public outcry pushed the government—which at the time was headed toward an election—to send the CRTC back to the drawing board. And as the election approached, Canadians pledged to vote for the Internet and over one hundred federal candidates committed to being “Pro-Internet Candidates”.

The pro-Internet community has continued to grow since then, pushing not only for Internet openness and affordability but also for access, choice, diversity, and innovation for Canada’s digital future.

To date, the OpenMedia.ca Facebook page has over 88,000 likes and the Twitter account @OpenMedia_ca has nearly 16,000 followers, representing not just an audience for digital issues, but a vocal and engaged community committed to participatory policy-making. And as the last couple of years have shown, this community is also committed to creating a movement.

It’s because of this pro-Internet movement that yesterday was a good day.

Bell’s takeover

When Bell announced its plan to take over Astral Media—thereby increasing its already-powerful grip on Canadian content and services—we at OpenMedia.ca, together with other public interest and consumer groups in the Stop the Takeover Coalition, asked the pro-Internet community to take action to block the deal.

Thousands responded, sending a message to the CRTC that the proposed Bell power grab would mean fewer media and telecom choices, higher prices, and less opportunity for free speech.

Then on Wednesday this week, in a shocking move, the CRTC announced they would hold a stakeholder lock-up (in other words, an announcement with only media and regulatory interveners in the room) during which they would reveal their decision on Bell’s bid to take over Astral media.

This came as a shock. Not only was the CRTC making their decision weeks before their deadline, they were also giving stakeholders a confusingly long time (an hour-and-a-half) to decipher it. Because of this, we were expecting a hugely complicated and not-so-positive decision to come down.

Then, at 4:00 PM ET on Thursday, Twitter began to rumble. Within just one minute of the lock-up ending, the tremors had become a full-fledged flurry of tweets excitedly exclaiming that Bell’s takeover had been blocked!

How it happened

Leading up to that moment, the CRTC, under its newly-appointed chair Jean-Pierre Blais, had begun to adopt a more citizen-centric focus. As Blais stated in a September press release:

In the coming years, we will focus our efforts around three key pillars: create, connect and protect. The activities identified under each of these pillars will serve to foster a world-class communication system for Canadians as citizens, creators and consumers.

In the wake of Stop The Meter, the previous chair and interim chair (Konrad von Finckenstein and Len Katz respectively) had begun this shift towards the public interest. Subsequently, it seemed the new Chair Blais was also ready to learn from the pro-Internet community and, at minimum, make important changes to the CRTC’s rhetoric. Since Blais was appointed earlier this year, we’ve been waiting to see if the Commission would put their money where their proverbial mouths were.

Bell’s spin

After the CRTC made its announcement, Bell’s PR army got to work. The result was a press release the day of the decision which, to put it bluntly, has set the bar for hypocrisy for years to come. Leaning on the ‘domestic champions’ argument—one which was unreservedly discredited by outgoing Competition Commissioner Melanie Aitken—Bell argued that it alone could have increased competition and choice in Canada’s telecom market...somehow...if the merger had gone through (note that the merger would have increased Bell’s share of the broadcasting market to twice that of its largest competitor).

Bell glossed right over the public interest side of the battle, and instead wrote that it was their competitors that had influenced the CRTC. In an ironic move, they accused the CRTC of allowing undue lobbying from the merger’s opponents, despite having recently been outed for unethical lobbying attempts themselves; that is, Bell had CRTC Vice-Chairman Tom Pentefountas as a guest in its corporate box at a hockey game—a revelation that ethics experts found incredibly disturbing.

Much of the media bought it

Sadly, the coverage of the CRTC’s landmark ruling focused largely on Bell’s impetuous accusations, and their framing of the debate as an insider battle between big cable companies.

After two years of citizens, innovators, public interest groups, and academics working tirelessly to create structural change within the regulatory process, the media’s framing of the debate as an industry dispute only is wholly off the mark. It seems that many otherwise savvy and courageous reporters fell prey to Bell’s spin, and so this failing is one disappointing aspect of an otherwise wonderful step forward for civil society.

It isn’t over

This battle isn’t over...and not just because Bell could still take the case to the Federal Court of Appeal. The fact remains that the Canadian media and telecom market is dominated by only a few large corporations. Concentration in our communications industry is more than twice as high as in the U.S., with four large companies controlling 86% of cable and satellite distribution, 70% of wireless revenues, and 54% of Internet Service revenues.

This, in short, means our digital future is still at risk. Canada has few media and telecom choices, high prices, and less opportunity for free speech than what is needed in a vast, culturally diverse, democratic nation.

The CRTC made a decisive move this week to choose the well-being of millions of Canadians over the narrow interests of Big Telecom—a huge, positive step, but we need the Commission and the government to take many more steps in the right direction before our media is truly open.

So let this be the start! And remember, Canadians: this is just the beginning. The digital future is ours for the taking, and it’s people like you that will make a difference.




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