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Outdated broadcast rules under review

Panel will examine whether feds should try to help legacy media


Former TELUS executive Janet Yale will head a federal review panel of media regulations.

OTTAWA— A federal review into Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications laws will examine the “disruptive and dramatic change” facing media industries — and what that change means for the country’s democratic institutions.

The Liberal government announced Tuesday that it will launch a wide-ranging, 18month review into Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications regimes, and suggested the law has not kept pace with the rapid change in those sectors.

The review is aimed at rewriting Canada’s broadcast rules to reflect the current broadcast reality — that streaming giants such as Netflix and Apple Music compete with legacy broadcasters for eyeballs and earbuds.

“We particularly want them to focus around affordability, availability of communications services, and then net neutrality,” Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, told the Star Tuesday.

But the panel conducting the review — seven experts led by former TELUS executive vicepresident Janet Yale — will also be tasked with assessing the thorny issue of how the internet has disrupted legacy news media and what, if anything, the government should do about it.

Calling Canadian news programming “key” to the “maintenance of a healthy democracy,” the panel’s terms of reference ask it to weigh two questions: First, are the current rules sufficient to “ensure” trusted and accurate news and information is available to the public? And second, are there specific rule changes that could guarantee the “continuing viability” of local news?

The document also references the increasing popularity social media platforms as a means to disseminate information — as well as the ability of “various actors” to “distribute false and misleading information” through them.

Michael Geist, the chairperson of internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, said he considers increased government regulation around news “problematic.”

“It came up in the (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) report last week, where its vision of regulation effectively includes the New York Times, the Toronto Star, podcasters — I mean, all services that offer up audio and video,” Geist said in an interview.

“And in this context as well, the idea that we’re going to try to address social media posts through the Broadcast Act? That’s a really heavy hammer to bring to this issue, where there’s core freedom of expression issues that are often at stake.”

Bains would not say which policy options he would consider in this area, and said he didn’t want to pre-empt the report.

The panel’s terms of reference also include a suggestion that digital platforms have a role to play in creating and promoting Canadian content, an idea floated by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly back in March.

That idea reappeared last week in a report requested by Bains and Joly from the CRTC. The regulator recommended new players in the Canadian broadcasting environment should recognize the “social and cultural” responsibilities of operating in Canada.

“These services draw significant revenues from Canada and Canadians and, in some cases, also make important contributions,” the report reads. “But neither their roles and responsibilities nor their contributions are currently recognized — and are certainly not guaranteed.”

Debates around these issues in Canada often devolve into a question about a “Netflix tax,” but Bains was adamant that the Liberal government would not entertain proposals that would increase costs for Canadian consumers.

“For me, a critical issue is making sure that Canadians do not pay more,” Bains said. “This is really around quality, coverage and price, and price is something that Canadians have expressed as a concern.”

The panel’s final report is due Jan. 31, 2020, with an interim report expected in June 2019.

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