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Is the Internet unregulatable?

The CRTC, Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications regulator (a la FCC in the US), is holding hearings into new media and if they should be subject to regulations.

As a quick backgrounder, I should explain that “traditional” broadcasters in Canada – television and radio, for the most part – are required to be licenced, and to air a specific percentage of “Canadian Content” within their broadcast day.

In 1999, the CRTC decided that while they had the legal authority to regulate the Internet and new media within Canada, they would not do so at that time as it was still emerging and taking shape.

Ten years later, they are looking into the issue again and it’s causing a lot of discussion and disagreement in the Canadian media and telecom sectors. There’s a lot to talk about on this issue, but I want to address one point that keeps coming up in popular discourse around Internet regulation.

Is it even possible to regulate the Internet? Many are discounting the possibility that the CRTC hearings will have a real impact because the sheer mass and apparent anarchy of the Internet make it seem like it cannot be regulated.

To assume that it cannot be regulated is foolish and dangerous. Canadians access the internet through a relatively small number of gatekeepers – Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw, Cogeco, Videotron. In any given geographic area, even heavily urbanized cities, there will be only two or three choices. Any regulations directed at those Canadian companies will affect how Canadians access the Internet.

For example, if the CRTC decided that a majority of videos provided to Canadians through their Internet connections had to be Canadian? It would be up to the ISPs to enforce that. You might suddenly find that the only video websites you can access are Canadian versions of YouTube with foreign video access curtailed severely.

The ability to control what you see on the Internet is already there. We’ve seen examples of this already in Canada. During the Telus/Telecommunications Workers Union lockout of 2005, Telus blocked access to a popular pro-union website for all of its subscribers across the country. They eventually restored access, but only after coming to a deal with the website forcing them to alter the content available so it was not as offensive towards Telus.

The reality is that the Internet is accessed through gatekeepers. Those gatekeepers might not be doing anything to your content at the moment, but the potential for them to do so is there. To dismiss the CRTC hearings by saying “oh, well you can’t regulate the internet anyway” is foolish.

I’ll have more to say on the CRTC hearings as they progress, but it’s a complex issue and I’m not entirely sure where I stand. Don’t take this post as an endorsement of “no regulation” — because it’s not. I truly haven’t made up my mind on this yet.


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