Saturday, March 21, 2015

Where does "Television" fit on the "Information Superhighway"?

Policy makers during much of the 1990's liked to use the phrase "Information Superhighway", trying to make an analogy between transportation technology and communications technology. With all the recent talk about the future of Canadian television, I started thinking about analogies between transportation and our video distribution systems.

Walking could be compared to over the air terrestrial transmission, which can't reach very far and can be thought of as the beginning of our transportation and video distribution journey.

Riding animals was our next step for transportation, which in my mind is analogous to the creation of Cable, Satellite, and related "Broadcast Distribution Undertakings" (BDU).  We had some choice over what animal to ride, and we could get a bit further, but we were still moving slowly.

Riding carts pulled by animals might be seen as the next step for transportation, analogous to BDUs going digital with BDU technology dependent set-top boxes.  We may not be sitting directly on the animal any more, which gives some advantages, but we were still powered by the animals and all the limitations and costs that came with them.

One of the many steps for transportation which shared roads was the electric car, which might be analogous to the legitimate over-the-top (OTT) video distribution systems like Netflix and YouTube (I wrote elsewhere in this blog why I don't consider Shomi, CraveTV or FibeTV to be legitimate). Like the 1890s where there was an attempt to ban electric cars because they scared the horses, there is an attempt by the BDUs, the companies they own, and their allies, to ban or regulate/tax out of existence the legitimate OTT services.

While there was a ban on electric cars, transportation technology still advanced to the present where we have automobiles, trucks, buses and a variety of other vehicles, powered by a variety of means, all using common road infrastructure.  While people still walk, and still ride horses, these are not considered viable options for longer distances except in very rare circumstances.

There are potentials with video distribution as well, with OTT technologies finally properly enabling the ability of neutral video distribution services to harness the much faster advancements in telecommunication technology. We can see a future where there is an open marketplace for creators and audiences to connect, if only we are all able to break free of all the arbitrary barriers put on these transactions by the legacy BDUs.

So - where do we go from here?  While some bemoan the lack of the flying cars that science fiction promised we would have by the early 2000's, I think we have legitimate reason to complain far more loudly at how far back we seem to be in video distribution technology.  Will we allow the modern day equivalents of horseshoe and whip makers, and others that feel tied to outmoded technologies, to delay the inevitable advancement in video distribution technology?

I hold it as a matter of pride that I am not a subscriber to a BDU, and that I am able to practice what I believe in this area of policy.  Government manipulations of the marketplace to protect outmoded companies from free market competition denies such choice in other areas.

Ontario Government intervention in Over the Top video policy discussions

I sent the following to my MP and Ontario MPP, after reading a few articles on Michael Geist's blog about Ontario’s Campaign for a Netflix Tax. For me this isn't about price, as I believe I get good value for money from Netflix and wouldn't mind paying more. For me this is a question of fairness, with the Ontario government having naive, counterproductive, and outrageously backwards ideas of what constitutes fairness in this area of policy.

I recommend other people in Ontario write to their MPPs and MPs on this issue.

To: John Fraser (MPP) and David McGuinty (MP),

I am a constituent of Ottawa South, sending this to both my MPP and my MP as this area of policy has considerable Federal-Provincial overlap.  Please forward to the relevant ministers and government departments as appropriate.  This should include the Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport and his Deputy Minister.  The Deputy Minister has already made some of his views on this area of policy known.

The growth of modern communications technologies such as those using the Internet Protocol includes the growth of what is often called "Over The Top" (OTT) video services.  These are services which make use of existing telecommunications infrastructure and standards, and run "over the top" of them such that they finally become neutral to the underlying communications technology.  OTT services are able to be delivered to us wired and wirelessly, over copper and fiber, and will be neutral to any other telecommunications technology we will dream up in the future.

With this technological advancement comes appropriate calls for regulation of these services.  Unfortunately the contribution to this debate by the Ontario government has thus far been naive and counterproductive.

While there are a wide variety of  options in this marketplace, I tend to group them into two classes:  true OTT services which are neutral to both communications service provider and technology,, and services which tie the ability to purchase the OTT service to a specific brand or subsets of brands of communications services.

The first group of legitimate OTT services include Netflix, YouTube, and some of the websites of Canadian broadcasters which allow streaming of content over the full range of Internet access service offerings in Canada.

The second group of services, which I believe should be declared illegal under Section 77 of Canada's Competition Act, related provisions under Canada's Telecommunications Act, and likely the Copyright Act (some copyright exceptions that legalized BDUs don't apply to OTT), include Shomi (Rogers, Shaw), CraveTV (Bell), and Fibe TV (Bell).

The harm of allowing this tied selling between content delivery services and specific brands of communications services cannot be underestimated.  The best way to protect the interests of Canadian creators and their audiences is to enable and protect an open marketplace that minimizes commercial barriers between these two groups.  Canadians who wish to access and pay for content made by fellow Canadians should not have intermediaries blocking their transactions.  One of the greatest advancements in communications technology for the benefit of these groups has been the growth of the Internet and neutral communications technologies.

The greatest threat to creators and their audiences is attempts by legacy communications technology providers to block or otherwise delay this distribution technology neutrality.  Government should take special care with proposals from people alleging to represent creators who suggest the welfare of creative sectors are tied to specific distribution brands, as evidence suggests they are under a form of Stockholm syndrome.  These individuals are not putting forward the interests of creators, but the interests of the intermediaries which represent their greatest threat.  Reading the Ontario government submission to the CRTC's "Let's Talk TV" consultation suggests it was authored by or on behalf of people with this harmful point of view.

I believe the primary objective of OTT service regulation should be to further foster and protect content distribution neutrality.  As with other policy goals there are a wide variety of policy levers that can be harnessed.

CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais has recently announced decisions  that suggest that agency will be appropriately targeting non-neutral OTT services like Shomi and CraveTV with additional regulatory obligations than what will be required of neutral OTT services (CRTC 2015-86).  While Steven Davidson, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, called for the reverse, I hope that the Ontario government will reverse its regulatory direction and help promote a healthy modern video content sector.

A small sampling of proposals:

* The companies that own the non-neutral OTT services have been the beneficiaries of many decades or longer of grants, tax breaks, government granted monopolies, and in some cases public infrastructure handouts.  One small way to help level the playing field is to provide directed content production grants to new entrants, encouraging original content by neutral OTT services to be produced in Ontario and Canada. These grants should not be available to non-neutral OTT services, their owners, or companies owned by their owners.

* Any existing government grants and programs which support content creation, whether audio/visual, audio, multimedia, text or otherwise, should be conditioned on the outputs being made available to citizens in a distribution neutral way.  Content which would be exclusively licensed to specific distribution mechanisms, including OTA, BDU (Cable/Satellite), or non-neutral OTT services would not qualify for these programs.

* Any proposals or promotions of a "Netflix tax", "YouTube Tax" or similar counterproductive proposals should be clearly revoked both publicly and in any behind-the-scenes lobbying.  Anyone who is honestly looking for a level playing field between neutral OTT and non-neutral OTT services should recognize that it is the non-neutral OTT services which have had decades of unfair government granted advantage which should be reversed.  Far from a "tax" on neutral services, there should be additional government grants for neutral services.  I don't  propose a tax on non-neutral services as I believe the CRTC and the Competition Bureau should declare these services unlawful and force them to become neutral services or shut down.

* While traditional CanCon is not a provincial responsibility, I believe there is a place for provincial involvement if CanCon rules are finally modernized and adjusted for the current content distribution reality.  The strength of CanCon rules should reflect the level of intermediary editorial control.   Services where Canadians are free to choose what they access from a large catalog with minimal intermediary interference should have a minimum of regulation, while services that have greater intermediary editorial control should have stronger regulation.  I don't believe CanCon should apply to Netflix or YouTube, but strongly believe this regulation applies to traditional OTA and BDU broadcasting.  I believe CanCon should also apply to a growing class of physical retailers like Walmart which through display and stocking choices have effective editorial control.

Thank you, and I look forward to a reply.  I apologize for the length of the letter, but this is an area of policy that is too complex for soundbites.  The health of the neutral network sector is of great importance to me as both a consumer and as someone who works in the Internet sector.  This is part of a larger area of policy I watch closely, and is one that greatly influences my voting and related political choices.

Russell McOrmond
305 Southcrest Private,
Ottawa, ON
K1V 2B7

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tough on criminals and terrorists, but soft of crime and terrorism

Out of interest I subscribe to the email mailing lists of all 4 Canadian parties with members in the house of Commons (I have no interest in the Quebec-only parties).  While there is nothing unexpected in the mailings from the Greens, Liberals and NDP, I find the messaging from the Harper Conservatives to be surprising.  In their choice of parliamentary activity to highlight, and the language they use, they come off as excessively emotional, immature and naive.

I could quote specific examples from mailings, legislation and media, but I suspect we have all seen it.

There seems to be no recognition that there is a difference between being tough on crime and terrorism is very different than being tough on criminals and terrorists.  There seems to be a simplistic focus on punishment rather than looking into the reasons why people commit acts which are put under these labels.  There also seems to be an ever increasing list of activities which are being put under these labels, with more and more otherwise law abiding citizens fearing that their legitimate political activities might be captured by these labels.

Canadian society, like any other, is complex and the solutions to complex problems within our society will themselves be complex.  This is not what we are seeing from the Harper Government.

There seems to be no recognition that police officers are human beings.  Within the ranks of Canadian society there are a small percentage which will carry out activities which fall under the label of illegal, criminal or worse.  Contrary to the language used and policies promoted by the Harper Conservatives, the same is true of the Canadians who are employed by the various types of police, security and military agencies.  While there might be more scrutiny of the employees of these agencies than for most other jobs, there is also more exposure to a wide variety of scenarios that would entice them to harmful activities (bribery, increased power which corrupts, often seeing and having to engage with the worst of society, etc).

With the subjective language used around terrorism (which sometimes seems like we are headed towards "thought crime"), more and more power is being granted to police and security agencies that can be abused to harm otherwise law abiding Canadians.

The reality is that for the same reason why we need police forces to protect society from that minority which would disrupt it, we need to restrict the power of the police and must police the police to protect society from that minority which would disrupt us all.  The Harper Government has a blind trust of police forces and security services, naively believing that giving these agencies access to more information about Canadians without court or other oversight is not itself a harm to Canadians.  This puts information of ordinary law abiding Canadians in the hands of individuals within these agencies that can and will abuse this information.

The naive and harmful policy is the same whether we are talking about so-called "lawful access", so-called anti-terrorism laws, or so called "tough on crime" bills.

I find it both sad and ironic that the same Harper Government which cancelled the long form census (IMO incorrectly) claiming that there were privacy concerns has been ignoring the legitimate privacy concerns of Canadians when it comes to information collected by government agencies which are far more likely to abuse this information.

Terrorism is the use or threat of violence for political aims.  The purpose is to disrupt society towards those political aims.   It is hard for me not to feel like the Harper Government is disrupting Canadian society by ignoring legitimate privacy interests, granting inadequately policed powers to police and security agencies, and through the politics of fear making people feel less safe.   While the violence is not their own, it appears to me that the Harper Government is using the violence and threats of violence of others for their own political aims.   While I believe governments must protect their citizens from terrorism, I feel that what we have been seeing from the Harper Government is counter productive.