Konrad Von Finckenstein: Outgoing CRTC Chairman Pushes Big Changes To Agency And Federal Digital Strategy

Konrad Von Finckenstein Crtc

First Posted: 01/21/2012 12:05 am Updated: 01/23/2012 1:46 pm

GATINEAU, Que. - Konrad von Finckenstein enjoyed his years as the CRTC's boss — now he'd like to see the place blown up.

Well, maybe not blown up, but so massively restructured and reoriented that it would be a different place altogether.

The tenure of the outgoing chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission covered a tumultuous five years in the industries he regulated — an era of mega-mergers and exponential growth of broadcasting over the Internet.

That growth leaves a lot of questions. Since the CRTC does not regulate anything on the web, how will Canadian content be protected in the future? Does it need to be? How should the feds respond when telephone, cable and television companies fuse into one?

The time has come, von Finckenstein says, to face facts: the old separation of telecom and broadcasting is obsolete. He advocates a single act to cover both sectors and a single regulator for broadcasting, telecom and even wireless spectrum — an area currently managed by Industry Canada.

"Whether you talk, whether you send video, whether you send a fax, an email ... it's just bits that are being sent over the same wire," he said in an interview. "That has completely changed our traditional definition of broadcasting and telecom. It's now essentially the same thing.

"It's time to review this legislation, it's 20 years old. We want a system that carries bits, carries them efficiently and gives Canadians as much access as possible."

At age 66, the plain-speaking, career bureaucrat with the suffer-no-fools reputation is a leading voice within the government for embracing the global digital revolution.

The Conservatives promised a digital economy strategy two years ago, but have yet to produce a plan. There seems to be no sense of urgency. They have mused about changing foreign ownership rules for telecom firms since 2009, but have yet to move. An auction of space on the wireless spectrum is scheduled for this year, but the rules have yet to be revealed.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis told the Hill Times newspaper that a copyright bill was a "key pillar" of the digital strategy. Those changes have been discussed by Ottawa for 15 years.

Von Finckenstein envisions something broader. He points out that other countries, including Australia, France and the United Kingdom, have appointed ministers to oversee all things digital. Such a position does not exist in Canada and very little government discourse revolves around the issue.

He says the cabinet hasn't acted on his ideas.

"We haven't seen any movement on this front at all, but that's partly because of the political landscape of minority governments and partly because it's a very difficult issue and not easily tackled."

Von Finckenstein's time at the CRTC was punctuated by controversial decisions, tension with cabinet and the creation of several new initiatives. Although the Conservative government is firmly geared toward cutting regulations, the CRTC chairman introduced some new ones.

Last fall, he placed new restrictions on big media corporations that hold both distribution interests (cable or satellite) and broadcasting networks, ensuring they couldn't keep TV programming away from competitors. He also forced cable and satellite firms to contribute to a fund to help support local television stations.

There were also a number of consumer-oriented initiatives — a do-not-call list for people who dislike telemarketers, better 911 service for cell users and a commissioner for telecom complaints.

And some of von Finckenstein's decisions were sent back to the drawing board by cabinet. The commission rejected wireless company Globalive's bid to launch a new cell service, deeming the company was not Canadian enough. Cabinet overturned that ruling.

Even more notable was the CRTC decision to allow big telecom Internet providers to impose usage-based limits on the smaller providers to whom they sell wholesale capacity. Industry Minister Tony Clement tweeted his disdain for the decision, riding a public backlash against the commission.

Von Finckenstein says candidly he realized that the commission's decision needed to be revisited as he sat before a parliamentary committee trying to explain it.

"Whether I like the way the minister tweeted or not is irrelevant," he said. "You've got to give him credit. He was right. This was a bad decision and it needed to be reviewed and we did it."

As far as his successor goes, von Finckenstein believes he or she should come with a certain resume.

"You certainly should understand governance, you should understand legal relationships and you should understand business, because, after all, this is a business, it's a business that has a huge social impact and that affects us all," he said.

Von Finckenstein has some advice for the new boss: keep your independent wits about you and don't get co-opted by big business.

"You go out, consult and meet with as many stakeholders as are involved because, you live very much in a bubble here, so everything you look at is through the telecom or broadcasting or communications point of view," he said.

"You go to B.C., half the people haven't even heard of the CRTC, that's very important to realize."

As for his own future, the quadrilingual grandfather says he's looking forward to some golf time.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Digital Locks

    The Copyright Modernization Act, Bill C-11, will allow Canadians to copy content from one device to another, such as from a CD to a computer or an iPod. This provision, however, does not apply to content protected by a digital lock, which is any technological measure, such as encryption or digital signatures, that rights holders use to restrict access to or prevent the copying or playing of CDs, DVDs, e-books, digital files and other material. (Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images) <em>Slides use files from CBC</em>

  • Non-Commercial Recording

    The act will allow Canadians to record television, radio and internet broadcasts and listen to or view them later on whatever device they choose but not for the purposes of building up a library or for commercial use. This provision does not extend to content that is offered "on-demand" (streamed video, for example) or protected by a digital lock.

  • Backups

    The act will allow Canadians to make a backup copy of content to protect against loss or damage -- again unless that content is protected by a digital lock or offered as an on-demand service.

  • Mash-Ups

    The act will allow Canadians to incorporate legally acquired copyrighted content into their own user-generated work, as long as it's not for commercial gain and does not negatively impact the markets for the original material or the artist's reputation. An example would be the posting of your own mash-up of a Lady Gaga song and, say, a Beyoncé number on YouTube. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Clear Channel)

  • Education

    The act will allow Canadians to use copyrighted content for the purposes of education, satire or parody. This expands what is known as the fair dealing provisions of the existing law -- which until now covered only research, private study, criticism and news reporting. (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Book Burning?

    The act will allow Canadians to copy copyrighted material that is part of an online or distance learning course in order to listen to or view it at a later time. Under this provision, teachers can provide digital copies of copyrighted material to students as part of the course but only if they and the students destroy the course material within 30 days of the end of the course. Teachers are also expected to take reasonable measures to prevent the copying and distribution of the material other than for the purposes of the course. Critics have referred to this part of the Act as the "book burning" provisions. (Flickr: pcorreia)

  • Librarians

    The act will allow librarians to digitize print material and send a copy electronically to users, who can view the material on a computer or print one copy. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

  • Disabled People

    The act will allow consumers who are disabled to adapt copyrighted material to a format they can more easily use. (Pierre-Henry DESHAYES/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Banned Tech

    The act will prohibit the manufacture, importation and sale of technologies, devices and services designed primarily for the purpose of breaking digital locks. This includes technology designed to allow you to play foreign-bought DVDs on your North American player, for example.

  • Breaking Locks

    The act will prohibit the circumventing of digital locks, even for legal purposes -- such as the education or satire uses protected by other sections of the Act. This is one of the most controversial parts of the legislation. Many experts have criticized the government for not including an exemption that would allow for the bypassing of digital locks for legitimate purposes, such as the copying of parts of digitally locked textbooks to view on another device or for use in an assignment.

  • Piracy

    The act will require internet service providers to notify their customers that they are violating the copyright law if a copyright holder informs the ISP of possible piracy. The ISP is required to retain "relevant information" about the user such as their identity, and that information could potentially be released to the copyright holder with a court order.

  • ISP Liability

    The act will exempt ISPs and search engines from liability for the copyright violations of their users if they are acting strictly as intermediaries in the hosting, caching or communication of copyrighted content.

  • Sharing Sites

    The act will prohibit a person to provide a service over the internet or another digital network that the person "knows or should have known is designed primarily to enable acts of copyright infringement." This clause is targeted at websites created for the purpose of distributing copyrighted content, such as the many popular peer-to-peer file-sharing sites used to swap video and audio, and is meant to "make liability for enabling of infringement clear."

  • Commercial vs. Personal

    The act will differentiate between a commercial violation of copyright law and an individual violation. Individuals found violating the law could be liable for penalties between $100 and $5,000, which is below the current $20,000 maximum.

FOLLOW HUFFPOST CANADA POLITICS

Filed by Michael Bolen  |