The CRTC and the Public

Summer is drawing to a close, so it’s back to the usual schedule for me. There was no blog post last month, but if you were paying attention you will know the news that the CRTC has a new Chair. Jean-Pierre Blais is out and Ian Scott is in. I have little basis for predicting what happens next (though the status quo tends to be the safest bet), so let’s look back before we look forward.

Blais’ term was served in the context of the internet era. Blais was the first Chair to grapple with a more mature ‘internet ecosystem’ — that is to say, a political economy that is showing some stability around a limited number of giant players: content providers (Facebook, Google/Alphabet, Netflix) and incumbent ISPs. In this respect, he recognized a need to deal with certain issues (net neutrality), and generally avoided making big, stupid mistakes.

But as many described it, Blais’ term can be defined by the CRTC’s focus on putting consumers first, which means the industry didn’t always get to decide what was in a consumer’s interest, and incumbents didn’t always get their way in the decisions. This should be situated in a wider context, stretching back to the origins of the CRTC’s regulation of Canadian telecom.

In a Globe and Mail article from (Aug. 6) 1976, titled The ‘consumer’s empty chair’, Geoffrey Stevens writes about the CRTC’s new objectives. 1976 was the year the CRTC first assumed responsibility for telecom regulation, which was previously handled by the Canadian Transport Commission (CTC). The change was meant to herald a new era of openness, and would “facilitate the involvement of the public in the regulatory process”, allowing interveners like consumer groups to participate “in an informed way”. It would be a move away from the “court-like atmosphere” of the CTC and towards something more informal. Also, copies of applications would be disclosed to parties that might want to intervene, and telecom companies like Bell would have to disclose information in public that they would previously file in confidence to the CTC (justifications for costs and prices).

The last of these was particularly irksome to Bell, whose lawyer subsequently warned the CRTC that such disclosures would hurt the company, and if all competitors had to similarly disclose they would be “hurting each other”. Well, more than forty years later confidential submissions and costing information remains a controversial issue, and Stevens’ question about the “consumer’s empty chair” remains outstanding: who will represent the public interest before the CRTC (or who will pay for the public’s lawyers)? There has certainly been progress, and much of it has been during Blais tenure. In addition to PIAC, there are now a significant number of new individuals and organizations participating in CRTC proceedings through different means. This allows the CRTC to claim broader legitimacy for its decisions, but participants are far from equal, and the Commission gets to decide how much to weigh their opinions. It’s still public participation bolted onto a complex regulatory apparatus, without much in the way of support (or a CRTC website that people can effectively use).

At a time when the FCC is experiencing somewhat of a crisis over transparency and openness to the public, the CRTC is in better shape, but still has a long way to go. Over to you Mr. Scott.