A Win for Citizens: How the CRTC’s Decision Helped Safeguard the Public Interest
For those of you who have not heard by now, on October 18th, 2012, the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced that it would deny Bell’s bid to acquire Astral Media. As many would expect, Bell was not too pleased with the CRTC’s decision to deny it’s bid, and quickly turned to the Parliament to have the CRTC’s decisions reconsidered, and possibly overturned. Currently, the Parliament has been unable to take any legal action because the CRTC operates independently from the government of Canada. Why though is this CRTC decision such a big deal for citizen and consumer interest groups?
The CRTC’s decision was largely based upon the grounds that Bell’s acquisition of Astral Media would increase vertical integration, giving Bell control over a huge portion of the telecommunications industry and, in turn, decreasing competition. In this case, the CRTC stepped up and took a stance against a powerful business in order to protect the public interest. Most importantly, the CRTC set a precedent for future businesses to look back upon. Janet Lo, Counsel for The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), noted that, “The Commission is sending a strong message to the broadcasting industry that any future media consolidation transactions must be proven to serve the public interest, reinforcing the importance of a healthy diversity of voices in the Canadian broadcasting system.”
The telecommunications industry in Canada is currently heavily concentrated by a handful of businesses. Four large companies control 86% of cable and satellite distribution, 70% of wireless revenues, and 54% of Internet Service revenues. Bell, as an Internet provider and media company, oversees a wealth of content and has the potential to control specifically what information it chooses to disseminate. Had the deal gone through, Bell’s jurisdiction over outlets in the telecommunications industry would have largely expanded, establishing larger barriers to entry for competitors, thus decreasing competition. Why is that an issue? Because by discouraging competition, Bell has a larger potential to maintain its position as one of the larger players in the telecommunications industry and increase its profits. By gaining such a powerful market position, Bell would have the incentive to pick and choose what is done with the information that we, as Canadians, would like access to.
Mentioned in our previous blog article, “Media governance in action: Our Experience at the CRTC Hearing,” the most shocking thing to us during the hearing was what seemed to be a lack of public awareness about both what was happening between Bell, Astral, and the CRTC, as well as the potential consequences of the proposed acquisition. When asking fellow students and peers if they had been following the merger, most would reply with blank stares and disconnected responses. Not many people understood how the CRTC’s decision could affect them as consumers, and even if they did, they were unaware of the potential actions that they could take to counter the acquisition.
As a chapter of OpenMedia.ca, we hope to educate students in the Montreal community about the importance of Internet-related issues that affect us from multiple perspectives. We often see citizens becoming engaged and mobilized over environmental issues: signing petitions, voicing the public’s point of view, promoting specific issues. As the Internet and communications systems are so integrated in our lives, this passion seen in the environmental field should be translated into action within media governance. There are many ways to engage citizens and have their voices heard regarding these media issues. OpenMedia.ca’s Stop the Takeover Campaign is an example of how we are able to educate Canadians, as well as our fellow students, about media governance issues and their impact on us as consumers. One advantage of organizations, such as OpenMedia.ca, is that one of their goals is to provide individuals with easy ways to take action. For example, through the Stop the Takeover Campaign, OpenMedia.ca provided Canadians with a user-friendly platform to submit oppositional comments about the merger directly to the CRTC. The prevention of the Bell/Astral merger can be marked as a victory for the citizens, but more importantly the case has empowered those individuals and organizations advocating for the public interest by showing them that their actions can have an effect.
In a telecommunications industry plagued with ambiguous, but emerging, methods of governance, it is very important for Canadians to step up and voice their concerns about the issues at hand. Not many people expected that the CRTC would oppose the merger, but it did, and likely based upon the large public outcry that arose against it. While the CRTC’s decision stands, Bell will surely attempt to do all it can to pass the merger. It is important for those who opposed the merger to keep paying attention to how the Bell/Astral merger plays out in the future. For now, thanks to everyone who helped with the Stop the Takeover Campaign, and enjoy the victory!
For additional information surrounding the CRTC’s decision to deny the merger, feel free to visit the following resources:
Written By: Stella Habib and Alexandra Esenler