First, let’s have a quick refresher course on our long wait for a National Digital Strategy. In the summer of 2010, then Minister of Industry Tony Clement launched a public consultation (together with the Ministers of Heritage and Human Resources) on what should be included in a National Digital Strategy though the government called it a Digital Economy Strategy and put a clear emphasis on infrastructure and economy. [Note – I would link to the consultation but as of writing all those public documents are offline. I will update when I can.]. We were promised a strategy document in the fall, then spring of 2011 and then pretty much annually we’d be told that it would be coming ‘soon’. There were those of us who thought there would never be a National Digital Strategy.
Why do we need one? Other countries such as Australia, the UK, the European Union, and even the US, have created National Digital Strategies to set a plan and measurable goals. What are we going to do to move into the future, make sure that every citizen has the tools that they need, has the protections and can fully enjoy the benefits of the new digital world? How will Canada make sure that it is competitive internationally? How are we going to measure our progress? Where will we put our emphasis – economy, skills training, infrastructure, privacy, content?
Today the government released Digital Canada 150. It’s an odd document. It has five pillars: Connecting Canadians, Protecting Canadians, Economic Opportunities, Open Government and Canadian Content. [Note that Skills Training or anything else to do with the Department of Human Resources, one of the sponsors of the original consultation, is absent.] In each pillar it sets out a few items that are forward thinking and celebrates the government’s past achievements. I think we were hoping for a more forward thinking document. I was. As with a lot of the government’s activities these days, it seems to have been written with an eye on the next election. How else do you explain unbundling of TV channels as a Digital Canada topic? It’s a nice sound bite aimed at getting votes when the reality is that providing Canadians with more choice while still living up to the goals of the Broadcasting Act is a very complex exercise and is unlikely to result in both more choice and less cost for consumers.
There is a goal to extend broadband coverage to 98% of the population by providing $305 million to extend 5mbps to rural areas. This is a reasonable target speed (though some jurisdictions have set faster speeds as their goal) but is only about coverage. Universal broadband as a concept is about coverage and affordable access. Citizenship in today’s digital world means that every Canadian should have affordable access to broadband. This goal does nothing to achieve that. But the rural voters probably will love it.
Back to content though. What does the Digital Canada 150 promise us as tools to give Canadians ‘easy access to Canadian content that will allow us to celebrate our history, arts and culture’ (Digital Canada 150 pg. 21)? Two Heritage Minutes per year every year until 2017. The Canada Book Fund and the Canada Music Fund will become permanent funds. There will be continued support of the Virtual Museum, the Memory Project (veterans stories), digitization by Library and Archives Canada and the NFB. Nice, but we asked for a lot more fundamental changes to be able to provide Canadians with access to Canadian content in the digital age and beyond.
What is missing? Canada Media Fund, Canada Book Fund, Canada Music Fund and more have all had digital content or distribution tacked on to their existing mandates, generally with no increase to their funding. Consumers are no longer accessing or engaging with content through silos. For example, magazines and books are read on iPads with hyperlinks to video. There needs to be a comprehensive overhaul of the funding mechanisms for Canadian content to ensure that they meet the social policy goals of the Department of Canadian Heritage and are structured appropriately.
The government did make the Canada Media Fund permanent and that was a great thing. But it did not increase the CMF’s funding when it extended its mandate to digital media. As Canadians shift to digital platforms and cut or reduce their cable packages, the CMF’s revenue from the BDUs is starting to shrink. Additional revenue sources need to be found if Canadians are going to continue to have access to the excellent Canadian programming choices that they have now. This could be additional funding from the government or a contribution from the ISPs or the OTT services, both of which are benefitting from the consumer shift to digital platforms.
The Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act should be merged into a Communications Act. New technologies and distribution models have frequently left the CRTC unsure as to which Act applies or whether either does, leaving it to the Courts to determine. Vertically integrated companies like Shaw, Rogers, and Bell are governed by both Acts at different times. These companies are able to shift revenues to divisions, such as the ISP divisions, with no or less regulation. A Communications Act would ensure that the Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications system was, where necessary, Canadian-owned and regardless of platform made the appropriate contribution to the production and exhibition of Canadian programming on that system.
The CBC has always had a mandate to provide information and entertainment to all Canadian across the country in both languages. Digital platforms make it easier for it to meet that mandate but at the same time repeated budget cuts have made it harder for the CBC to fulfill that mandate. There should be a review of the CBC’s mandate in light of the opportunities of digital platforms and a clear provision of sufficient funds so that the CBC can meet that mandate.
Another ask was for more support for original digital media through labour-based tax credits. Extending the film and video tax credit to web series and creating an interactive media tax credit would help develop a labour market of skilled talent in these newer digital content areas.
The government reformed the Copyright Act recently but it is up for review as of 2017. At that time, the Copyright Act should be amended to ensure that creators and owners are appropriately compensated when their works are exploited on digital platforms. The last amendment did not appropriately address that issue.
Skills training is a subject that was completely left out of Digital Canada 150, which is odd considering that it was a prominent aspect of the consultation. The content sector has called for improvements in training both at university and for mid-career training so that creators can take full advantage of innovations in digital content creation and distribution. There are gaps in the labour market that need to be filled if the sector is going to be internationally competitive.
Despite a full pillar titled Canadian Content, there isn’t much in Digital Canada 150 for the film, television and interactive digital media sectors.