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Net neutrality isn’t a substitute for a cultural policy

A year ago, Canada's Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly told this newspaper that with regard to her mandate, the Canadian cultural industry and the regulation of it: "Everything is on the table."

Ms. Joly again spoke to this newspaper on Tuesday between stops at Twitter and Facebook as she toured Silicon Valley. Ms. Joly does a lot of international touring where she speaks about Canada's culture producers – the TV, movie and music makers, as well as authors and video game creators – and this time she connected the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's recent decision to affirm net neutrality as a principle in Internet rule-making to Canada's attempt to make sure our national artistic voice is heard around the world.

"I think that we're trying to have a cultural policy that is adapted to the digital age, whereby you believe in the importance of freedom of the Internet, you believe in the importance of net neutrality," she said.

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It sounds nice, but an open Internet fits somewhat awkwardly alongside the existing regime of government support for Canadian culture.

Let's take music. The CRTC told Videotron (and the other telecom companies) that it could no longer zero-rate data for streaming music; a practice whereby the Quebec wireless provider was picking up the tab for the gigabits you burn on your smartphone streaming Chance the Rapper, but anything else you do is charged at the usual rate. The federal regulator affirmed that pricing this content differently favours it over other Internet content, which could stifle innovation.

That seems reasonable, but it won't actually change the relationship between Canadians and streaming. In the last 24 months, Apple Music and Spotify have grown dramatically and in 2016 streaming passed downloads as the largest source of music revenue. The players in this market are global, and the royalties they pay to musicians are punishingly low. If a Canadian player – like, say, Stingray Digital – was going to compete, it would need more than fair access to Canada's market to do so. Net neutrality here is more likely to impact the fortunes of Canada's wireless carriers and far less likely to do anything for musicians.

Still, some Canadians seem quite pleased to be on the winning side of this philosophical argument, first articulated by American scholar and activist Timothy Wu in 2002, particularly as the United States's telecom regulater, the Federal Communications Commission, looks ready to walk back its own recently articulated net neutrality rules. Having a strong set of protections for bits of the Internet seems like a good thing for consumers, particularly when it comes to having access to services not owned by the big national telecom services.

But Ms. Joly's remit is culture, and Canada's broader system for supporting national cultural content is far from "neutral." So far, she has been very shy about roping Netflix or other streaming video players into Canada's system of levies for the production of home-grown TV. Perhaps then, if there's no government role, Canada's integrated telecom and TV producers (who do pay into that content system) could cut their own deals with Netflix, charging the Los Gatos, Calif.-based juggernaut some extra tolls for accessing Canadians on their wires and radio waves. This kind of "peering" deal is precisely the kind of thing that Donald Trump's FCC thinks should be allowable, and is the kind of deal Netflix has struck with some of the major U.S. Internet service providers (ISPs) in the past. It's not net neutral, but in Canada it could serve as an industry "tax" if the government can't or won't levy its own.

Ms. Joly seems aware of the contradiction of mandating Canadian content rules for domestic services but praising the exploitation of a free and open Canadian Internet for foreign cultural products. But after months and months of consultations, it seems we're no closer to either putting something on that Heritage table to address the contradiction; nor is it any clearer whether Ottawa might be ripping the government-supported Band-Aids off altogether and letting everyone be free.

Net neutrality may be good Internet policy, but it's not a substitute for a cultural policy.

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More

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