Fake Crime Waves – CRTC Creating Criminals?

Commentary, Disruption, Peter Holle

Discussions about the high crime rate usually end up attributing it to some root cause or other, things like poverty or poor schooling. But in Canada the biggest source of crime has nothing to do with sociology. It’s foolish laws.

Nothing illustrates this point more emphatically than the legal tangle that surrounds satellite television services. The Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC), performing its legislated role as the guardian of the airwaves, hobbled the industry here with regulation and delay. Big Brother is watching all right, but some might argue that he’s mentally challenged.

At first the CRTC refused to license local satellite services at all until providers jumped through the familiar Canadian content hoops. That effort was itself futile, since most viewers can already watch American programming all the time, if they wish. But the slow process spawned the emergence of a "grey market" as 300,000 consumers bought dishes from U.S. companies.

It’s legal to own the dishes, but it’s a crime to purchase the signals that they deliver because they’re not licensed by the CRTC. That conundrum distorted the market even more. Canadians have to set up an U.S. mailing address to pay for the signals or else buy counterfeit decoding cards and steal them. Since the American companies have no recourse in our courts, the latter option is often selected. In other words, CRTC policies promote legalized theft.

Well, the CRTC finally got around to licensing two Canadian direct-to-home satellite companies. But by the time they started up, the grey market had already siphoned off much of their trade. So now they offer an "amnesty" program. If you bring in your American dish, they’ll give you up to $800 worth of free programming. They’ve also had to slash their prices in half.

In addition, to avert total failure, they’ve taken a cue from their brothers in the Canadian broadcast industry. To guard their cozy monopolies, cable companies did their best to stop CRTC approval of satellite services. Now the satellite companies work the CRTC system and the courts to shut down the pesky grey market. They’re suing 21 dish distributors across the country for $300 million in damages and are seeking injunctions to shut them down.

Absurdity piles on absurdity. Instead of fighting real crime, the RCMP now must dilute its scarce resources and run about seizing electronic equipment honestly sold and purchased.

What purpose does this all serve? It fulfills the CRTC’s mandate to ensure that the broadcasting industry remains "essentially Canadian in content and character." The problem, however, is that technology is emasculated that goal, hence that mission ought to be quickly abandoned as an archaic nationalist relic.

Consider. What will the CRTC do when the Internet expands to include regular television programming, as it most certainly will? Tap telephone lines to make sure that we all get our daily dose of the Air Farce and Hockey Night in Canada?

The information revolution is global in scope and unstoppable. The future shape of the industry will bring thousands of choices for consumers. They cannot be regulated by anyone, never mind a small band of officials in Ottawa. By continuing to try, they simply guarantee more hearings and enrich more law firms.

Based on modern realities, a reformed CRTC would become a neutral referee, a sort of electronic Land Titles office that registers and licenses. It would intervene only to settle disputes between broadcasters trying to crowd out each other’s signals.

The CRTC’s present structure is a leftover from the days long past. Until it is revamped, it will continue to generate an uncontainable crime wave.