"In my view, the CRTC has become a burden on the Canadian public," reads an email from Mike. "I don't want to see the commission completely dissolved and gone forever. We want the members of the commission to be dissolved."
"Mike" is Mike Lerner, a twenty-three year old software company employee Ottawa and a man who, if successful, may alter Canadian communications forever.
Frustrated by the regulatory incompetence of Canadian Radio-television Telecommunication Commission, Lerner founded dissolvethecrtc.ca earlier this year. The website since has become the rallying point for all dissatisfied Canadian internet users seeking change: He's recruited 2000 members on Facebook and garnered more than 6500 online signatures. Should he collect 10,000, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore has promised to take the proposal to the floor.
"The CRTC is not at all acting in the interest of the public," Lerner tells me. "I don't believe we can make any changes to the CRTC's current state because they are not able to adapt to the changing markets they regulate."
There's much lurking in Lerner's prognosis. Delving into the reasons behind the CRTC's seeming inability to regulate is like opening up a computer: a reticulated mess incomprehensible to the decidedly un-techno laity, where one wire invariably leads to ten.
Take, for example, the recent decision to allow Bell Canada to implement usage-based billing, stunning for its lack of vision. In Canada, a company such as Bell Canada (wholesaler) sells access to the infrastructure (called Gateway Access Service or GAS) which independent ISPs then use to sell internet access to customers. One of the ways independents have been able to distinguish themselves in a market place dominated by looming tele-co giants, is to set their bandwidth ceiling very high-higher than Rogers or Bell. That is, until the CRTC passed an interim decision in August allowing Bell Canada to effect usage-based billing.
"One of the rationale behind usage based billing was that usage-based billing was already being applied to cable, and the regulation of cable shouldn't be different from the regulation of broadband," says Catherine Middleton, who as Associate Professor at the School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson, has been examining how Canadians use wireless broadband networks.
"But the practically side of that is that there is very little provision of broadband over cable," she says.
Very little. In Canada, internet is effectively a duopoly.
But, the story of usage-based billing goes further than corporate bullying. Wrapped up in UBB is piracy, privacy, net neutrality-really, the question is existential: what are we on the internet and how ought the internet be used?
A question so large ought to, and most likely will, be never answered, only revisited continually by future generations. However, the discussion must first be fostered.
Enter the terms "CRTC" and "Net neutrality" and it soon becomes evident that the once stalwart guardian of Canadian broadcasting and guarantor of Canadian content, is now perceived by many as more corporate lackey than corporate watchdog. A string of controversial decisions, such as CRTC's decision last week to release the names of three companies in violation of the Do Not Call List, widely regarded as a mishandled attempt to deflect scrutiny away from larger violators, has reinforced this view.
How did the CRTC come to this? And why is it so powerless to effectively regulate?
A part of the problem lies in the outdated documents the CRTC consults. The two documents, The Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act, are both over a decade and a half old, with the former being conceived in 1968, long before the internet existed. (The Broadcasting Act was amended in 1991, but more or less retains its original form.)
"The Broadcasting Act reflects effectively the policy concern at the time and that is whether or not they would carry enough Canadian content," says Michael Janigan.
Michael Janigan, the Executive Director and General Counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, has been involved with telecommunication issues, amongst others, since the seventies.
"Nobody ever imagined the idea that it would become an important service or a platform for the launch of other services like the internet," he says.
As crucial as internet services are, our ruling documents contain nothing about the rights of the consumer or reasonable rates.
"CRTC doesn't have the power to regulate in the way most people want them to regulate," says Janigan.
Some of that could be attributed to former industry minister Maxime Bernier, who, in 2006, directed the CRTC to proceed with a "light regulatory touch," adding that consumers would benefit "from greater choices and improved products and services" stemming from increased competition in the marketplace.
Since Bernier's tenure, complaints regarding the CRTC have increased.
"It turned everything on its ear," says Janigan. "The policy objectives of access and affordability are being compromised in order to de-regulate."
"Now we've got a whole raft of things that are being de-regulated and not being looked at, like quality of service. And it's all being done under the aegis of Bernier's policy directive."
When asked what the ideal CRTC would look like, Mike Lerner responded, "The ideal CRTC can understand new business models, listens and acts on public's interests and not in favour of the media or telecom companies. A commission that is transparent and open with the Canadian public."
Whether a commission encumbered by outdated guiding documents and a crippling policy directive can emulate Lerner's ideal remains to be seen. It's necessity, however, is very apparent.
"How do we want a public network to be used? The provision of a broadband network across Canada has to be looked upon in the same way as the provision of railroad was a hundred years ago. And whether or not these policies are commodious to the development of the country," says Janigan.
"These products and services will shape the growth of this country for a long time to come."