The case against online Can-con regulations

I hope Bryan Adams has a dot-ca domain name registered somewhere.

More than a decade after the rock singer faced a skirmish over whether his album was “Canadian” enough to get additional airplay on radio stations here, the regulator who sets Canadian content rules is reportedly taking a second look at the Internet. The Toronto Star published excerpts from a CRTC draft report on new media which suggested that we may need Can-con quotas for Internet service providers and content creators. The governing principle behind this thinking is the same as always: without the regulations, we’ll do nothing but pay attention to what the United States broadcasts over the Internet.

Whenever Internet regulation comes up, all kinds of nightmarish scenarios are sketched out. This includes the idea of a levy placed upon ISPs to subsidize the Can-con that doesn’t end up on prominently on their networks, and even the kind of traffic shaping that would violate everything we hold dear about net neutrality. There’s no real panic yet that either of these things will occur, but they should concern IT managers insofar as it could affect the portals they help set up and manage on behalf of their employers, or the ease with which their users can find what they need online – which sometimes has nothing to do with Canadian content.

It’s interesting to look at the Can-con system to govern the music industry here. Dubbed MAPL, it stipulates that content must meet four criteria: the music, artist, production or lyrics must come from a Canadian or have been produced here. Bryan Adams, who collaborated primarily with a U.S. producer for one of his albums, brought the credibility of MAPL into question, a debate which led to a special exception for those working with foreign colleagues.

There would be no easy way to replicate the MAPL system for Web content, unless the CRTC restricts itself to the kind of organizations – radio and TV broadcasters – which do little to command an online audience. Canadian content doesn’t merely reside on Canadian-operated Web sites (whose servers might be located in another part of the globe). The focus would have to be much more on the distribution channels for content – not merely the ISPs but the likes of iTunes, and who knows how many sources of business-related information.

It would also be challenging for the CRTC to get its head around the idea of aggregation, in which a “Canadian” Web site merely repurposes or links to U.S.-related information. Does packaging by a Canadian company turn U.S. or other foreign content into Can-con? What if the content is American but it contains links to Canadian Web sites?

If the CRTC is really worried that Canadians are primarily visiting U.S. Web sites, it might have a lot more to do with search engine optimization and the kind of metadata that Canadian portals are using (or not using) to attract users. That’s a technical issue, not a content issue, but it has a lot to do with why some content gets consumed over another. Before anyone thinks seriously about changing the rules of the Internet, we need to make sure everyone has the same understanding of how they currently work.

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