Commentary  The future of information

In late October, the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television Commission) ruled that large telecoms like Bell would be permitted to charge smaller, wholesale buyers who resell bandwidth a higher premium on the internet they use. This increase would then be passed on to consumers, meaning that people who enjoy unlimited or high bandwidth caps would now be subject to limits as low as 25 gigabytes per month – equivalent to streaming roughly 25 to 30 hours of television – for the same price. This would have effectively granted the larger providers an oligopoly on the market, allowing them to set prices where they could profit most with little or no competition. As a direct result of public action, including protests in Montreal and other major cities and petitions circulated nationally, the government responded by calling on the CRTC to reverse its ruling. The ruling is now being reevaluated, and hopefully is on its way out.

It is admirable that the government reacted so strongly to public pressure and stepped in to prevent a clear abuse of power on the part of the CRTC, but beyond this unique event, the commission isn’t functioning as the independent and publicly accountable body it’s supposed to be. Ad hoc interference on the part of elected officials is a disastrous long-term prospect, and an abuse of the relationship between the party in power and a body that should be impartial and nonpartisan, much like the judiciary.

The CRTC has recently proposed changes to several radio and television regulatory acts. Its amendments would change the provisions in these acts that call for “the prohibition on broadcasting false or misleading news” and amend them to “any news that the licensee knows is false or misleading and that endangers or is likely to endanger the lives, health or safety of the public.” What seems like a small change could be a huge blow to the quality of information that Canada receives from its news sources. By effectively removing the need for fact checking in news, the CRTC is undermining citizens’ ability to trust in news sources and will effectively make it impossible to hold the media responsible for its content. The CRTC must be held publicly accountable for its actions.

There is a thin line between government regulation of the internet and unchecked access to and dissemination of information. While regulation to keep the media responsible and affordable to citizens is necessary, it is also important that governments are not allowed to have complete control over either access or the type of information presented. There is a delicate balancing act to maintain, one that becomes more complicated to control as media and the internet become more integrated into our daily lives.

The CRTC’s recent actions have shown a disregard for both citizens’ ability to access information and the quality of information that they receive. Canadians need to continue both to stand up for their right to affordable internet and access to high-quality and accurate information, but also be aware of what role they want their government to play in that regulation.