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Actually, regulating Netflix might be pretty absurd

The other day I wrote about why it might be logical to regulate Netflix in Canada the same way that broadcasters get regulated. A number of issues came up after asking people on Twitter.

(Photo: Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images)

The other day I wrote about why it might be logical to regulate Netflix in Canada the same way that broadcasters get regulated. While the specific rules differ, both radio and television broadcasters are required to air a certain percentage of Canadian programming each day. On the TV side at least, they’re also required to pay into a fund that then creates this programming.

Since Netflix is essentially another television channel – albeit one that is piped to TVs over the internet – it stands to reason that it should be subject to the same rules. I couldn’t actually think of a good reason why it should be exempt, so I asked people on Twitter to see if they had any ideas. I got a lot of good responses and suggestions.

A number of issues came up. Here’s a sampling, along with some counter-thoughts.

Blockbuster isn’t regulated, and Netflix is similar to Blockbuster. That’s true, although Blockbuster is clearly a retailer. It’s definitely not a broadcaster, while there is a strong case that Netflix is. The two are actually very different businesses.

Should iTunes and similar services like Xbox Live also be regulated? Probably not because iTunes is actually more similar to Blockbuster – a retailer – than it is to Netflix.

Does the medium matter? Strangely, maybe it does – watching Netflix on a television screen seems to make it more regulatable (that’s not a word) than watching it on a computer monitor.

What about YouTube and Vimeo? Those are free services while Netflix is paid. Should that matter? Probably not, because free over-the-air television stations are still subject to CanCon rules.

Netflix already has a lot of Canadian content. Yes it does, but it isn’t required to pay for producing it.

Netflix is different because it’s all on-demand. This one’s a stumper because it puts the service in a category all its own. It’s most similar to cable providers’ video-on-demand television services, which do have CanCon regulations applied to them, but it’s not quite the same. For one thing, cable VOD is pay-per-view (correct me if I’m wrong, it’s been ages since I’ve had cable) while Netflix is more of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

As is pretty evident, whether or not Netflix should be regulated is a very muddy issue because many moving pieces come into play. One sentiment that came through again and again during the Twitter conversation was the belief that regulating Netflix is a slippery slope – if you do it, sooner or later people are going to want other internet services and websites regulated.

That might be the kicker to the whole argument. After all, Canadians can listen to just about any radio station in the world online right now – here’s a fine selection of what the Czech Republic has to offer – so should those stations also be subjected to CanCon regulations? That would be pretty absurd, wouldn’t it?

One thing is definite: the internet has made cultural protectionism obsolete. As several people suggested during the Twitter chat and as I intimated toward the end of the other day’s post, it’s probably about time to jettison these outdated rules. That, however, is another can of worms for another day.


Peter Nowak is an award-winning journalist and author of the best-selling book Sex, Bombs and Burgers. He has been a staff writer for the CBC, National Post and New Zealand Herald, while his work has appeared in the Boston Globe, South China Morning Post, Sydney Morning Herald and the Globe and Mail, among others. His personal blog can be found at www.wordsbynowak.com.