Two decades into a new century, a medium that began as a technological curiosity has evolved into a force of great influence. Accessible far and wide through modestly priced devices, it quickly became a popular way to spend leisure time. In Canada, it sparked concerns about a dominant American industry that permeated across the border, and some of the radical content featured on the new medium caught government attention. The government set to work to introduce new regulations and seize national control over an industry spurred by this new communications technology.
If you read that paragraph as a summary of where Canada currently stands with regulating the internet, your assumption is understandable. However, the technology referenced is radio and the century is the 20th.
Radio’s emergence in Canada created issues that spurred significant government intervention and were parallel to many of the issues at the heart of debates about internet regulation today.
In 1929, the Aird Commission issued a report after investigating the implications of radio for Canada, leading to the creation of what we know today as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The Aird Commission examined how the advertising-heavy business model of radio stations clustered around urban centres worked. It was concerned that rural Canadians would be denied access to the new medium and all the benefits it brought. Another concern was the ever-growing dominance of American radio stations that were already being broadcast across the border, with many interested in setting up local expansions into Canada. Even the broadcasts themselves were under scrutiny following several pointed attacks on the Catholic Church and federal government that occurred over the airwaves.
A century later, the regulatory debate about communications technology has shifted to the internet but is being painted with the same broad strokes. This time, concerns about the advertising model are that it is dominated by Silicon Valley tech giants, leaving little revenue for Canadian news media to subsist. Access is still an issue, with many rural Canadians without broadband access. While other households may have basic access, they are unable to afford high quality internet access that is required to participate fully in the online economy.
While the desire to protect and promote Canadian content against the dominant American industry informed the creation of the CBC and CRTC in the 1920s, this desire has transformed itself in the 2020s into attempts to regulate American digital behemoths in order to support Canadian content. The outrage over the content published online has created a public uproar similar to that of the 1920s. However, the offenders are private firms seeking profits, and the offending content ranges from being outright illegal to rampant disinformation.
The implications of the Aird report played out over decades, resulting in new regulations that shaped the broadcast industry throughout the 20th century. For better or worse, Canada’s experience with broadcast media continues to be viewed through the lens of a regulatory regime that seeks to curb the power of privately held firms in order to achieve Canada’s cultural objectives. At this point, we can safely expect that legislative decisions made by the government in the next year or two will have a similar impact on Canadians’ experience with the internet for decades to come.
The question remains whether Canada will commit to a democratic and open internet that puts people first, or will it put a damper on the greatest transformative economic force of our time?
At CIRA, we believe that Canadians deserve a better internet. That’s why we collect their opinions on the internet issues that matter most to them every year. As internet regulation looms, public opinion on these issues matters more than ever before. We explore the potential paths ahead in this year’s edition of the Canadians Deserve a Better Internet report.