By Frank Moher
I like a good government intervention as much as the next failed banker, but the current CRTC meddling with the internet should send chills down the spine of anyone who uses the instrument — like, say, you.
The commissioners are looking into the question of whether or not internet service providers should have to pay into a fund for the creation of Canadian content. This, of course, would be an excellent idea if we were living in the 1970s and the internet were the music or TV industry. But as it’s not, and we’re not, the whole idea is about as wrong-headed as can be.
The chief difference between then and now is the radically lowered price of admission. Canadian musicians and producers once needed a leg-up from the government not only because the costs of creating an album — certainly of creating a TV show or movie — were daunting, but because getting the product to an audience was nearly impossible. All that has changed. Musicians now record on a notebook computer in their living room, and reach their fans directly via Myspace, YouTube, and iTunes. And homemade video distribution is only slightly behind. I’m not talking about teenagers recording themselves on webcams in their parents’ basements; I’m talking about fully-fledged webisodics like The Guild and, from Canada, Sviszgaar.
Certainly the cost of producing conventional TV remains high, and will continue to need government support. Mind you, with CanWest Global rapidly imploding, and CTV projecting a $100 million loss in 2009, no amount of funding for Canadian programming will be enough to save the old school way of doing things. That’s why the networks and various artists’ organizations are in front of the CRTC pleading for help. Help us to survive, they say, and in a way we understand.
But rather than delaying the inevitable, the best thing may be to let the old guard die now. It is manifestly not to impose played-out solutions on a new industry that has proven anarchy can work.
The greatest danger in the CRTC’s dilatory interest in the internet is that once it has executed what it regards as good works — say, that $100 million content fund — it will move on to regulating what we can or cannot do or see while surfing. Sound unlikely? Keep in mind that this is the organization that for years kept HBO out of Canada; what’s to prevent it from similarly advantaging Canadian websites by, say, creating a tiered web in which all other content was harder and slower to reach? Or deciding that certain sites contravened Canada’s hate laws and blocking access to them altogether? There’d always be technological work-arounds, but the point is we don’t want them fiddling in the first place. The web is doing fine just as it is. It doesn’t need the government’s help — and neither do its Canadian artists.