CRTC Hearing: Digital First Canada Asks for a System that Doesn’t Hurt Digital First Creators

Digital First Canada has also made an appearance before the CRTC. They tried to make their case.

Today, we decided to cover another hearing that happened at the CRTC. This time, we are covering what Digital First Canada had to say. One of the things that we heard in the leadup to this organizations appearance is that they wanted to contrast themselves from other stakeholders. Those other stakeholders include Bell Media, Rogers, and Corus who were all taking their turns before the CRTC proclaiming that their business model of producing content people don’t want to consume is failing and that the government should step in and force money to be siphoned off of successful businesses and redirected to their failing business models.

Of course, outside of the ridiculously obvious problems of this mentality (namely marketplace issues), this comes with it the risk of basically setting up a system that steals money from the producers who need it the most (namely digital first creators) and redirects that money to the organizations that need it the least (the large mega corporations that owns huge swaths of the Canadian physical infrastructure). Even worse, the large media companies envision hijacking the algorithms and demanding that everyone be force fed their content instead, regardless of whether or not users wanted it. In short, they want a constant always-on cheat code that ensures that their business model succeeds no matter what – even if their content is not worth watching by any stretch of the imagination.

YouTube, for their part, was on earlier in the hearing asking for a system that doesn’t harm the digital ecosystem. It’s unfortunate that the momentum is on those who would rather cheat the system rather than produce content that people want to watch. So, it is questionable whether or not they would be listened to on this manner.

What’s more, Paramount was also presenting their case, taking a different approach. They commented that if they are expected to fork over huge sums of money to the legacy media players, then that puts into question whether or not they would even continue making critical investments into the Canadian ecosystem. They even went so far as to suggest that a bad system would cause them to re-think whether or not they want to continue offering their services to Canadians. So, there is that threat added to the mix.

Back to the digital ecosystem and the free market of ideas side of the debate, though, Digital First Canada was trying to make their case for why digital first creators should not be harmed in the process. Their hearing can be read on a transcript on the CRTC website if you want to follow along. Here’s one of the highlights from that hearing:

6240 MR. BENZIE: Thank you, Chair and Commissioners, for having us here today. My name is Scott Benzie. I’m the Lead of Digital First Canada, an organization that supports and advocates on behalf of digital creators across the country.

6241 I am joined by my colleague and creator, Fred Bastien, who is here to speak to the specific experience of Francophone digital creators. We are new to this conversation; this is certainly our first time in front of the CRTC. We have no team of lawyers to help us through this, so please bear with us. Ad‑libbing, we got lost coming here today, but we’re here.

6242 I have the honour of sitting in front of you today not to talk about an industry in crisis or one that needs saving, but one that is thriving both domestically and globally. I am here to speak to you today about an opportunity to support something that is working and, in the worst case scenario, talk you out of doing some harm.

6243 Canada’s digital‑first creators are best described as artists of many different practices. They are diverse, they are innovators, they are entrepreneurs, they are Canada’s greatest cultural export, and it is not close. They simply chose a different distribution model. That model has given creators such as Shina Nova, an Inuk throat singer, an audience that she can monetize ‑‑ not a fringe couple thousands of people, but millions and millions of people from around the globe. She just makes great content. Her story is not unique; there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of those stories across Canada.

This nicely contrasts the standard “sky is falling” presentations from the big media companies. It highlights how Canadians are actually succeeding in the landscape. What’s more, it counteracts the propaganda that Canadian culture is somehow “drowning” thanks to the large platforms. Instead, the presentation focuses on what is really happening with Canadian creators and Canadian culture: the fact that it is thriving and doing better than ever before.

Scott Benzie also said that he wanted to talk about discovery – which is ultimately the crux of the problems here – but was unable to because he got asked to make his presentation on different subjects.

Benzie also highlighted another major problem with the system: that Canadian creators almost always are unable to qualify:

6247 The truth is, today’s funding bodies are not equipped to support DFCs. Today’s funding bodies are based on funding content, not funding individual businesses. The proper way to allocate resources for digital‑first creators is through business building activities. Each creator, emerging or professional, is a business.

6248 Barriers to entry. DFCs do not have teams of lawyers to work on submissions like traditional media who have done this for years and have people employed with the sole goal of checking boxes. There are too many DFCs in Canada to support. Current funding models are project‑based and unworkable for the diversity of projects, creators, and needs of Canadian digital creators. There are tens of thousands of creators that we would consider professional or emerging, and funding on a project basis for that cohort is just impractical.

This is a finding I made a while back when I analyzed the Canada Media Fund’s new $500,000 funding pool for creators. It was designed to ensure that no one would qualify in any practical way. Instead, it was a fund seemingly set up for the Canada Media Fund to pretend that they are helping digital creators when, in fact, they could care about that cohort of creators. In short, it was seemingly just a big show for politicians and little else.

For the commissioners, however, it was all a big clueless mess for them where they were just asking questions of what digital creators even are. One example was this during the question and answer session:

6278 COMMISSIONER LEVY: You’ve talked in your submission about the fact that nobody seems to really understand your industry ‑‑ so, that we don’t really understand how you earn your money and build your careers online. So, this is your opportunity to educate us, (laughs) please. How would you say digital creators are different from other creators? How do their needs differ?

This highlights a massively huge problem with how this whole Bill C-11 blunder was handled. Regulators and lawmakers didn’t care how the digital creative ecosystem worked. In fact, throughout the process, everyone who was simply fighting to retain what they had was viewed as a threat that had to be silenced. Some were direct enough to call for “investigations” into anyone who dared to criticise the legislation.

Honestly, at this late stage in the game, the CRTC should really have a good grasp of the industry at this stage. Instead, we are stuck with a CRTC that continues to remain clueless on this. It’s the equivalent of Rogers Communications making their presentation and asking how a television works and how people make money in some newfangled technology like that. If a CRTC Commissioner asked that with the idea that no one at the regulator knows how TV works, everyone would be screaming “WTF???” and calling for resignations.

Yet, here we are with a CRTC that is marching forward with one of the most intrusive internet regulation they have ever gotten their hands on asking entry level questions at this point. It’s insane that they don’t seem to be bothering with doing their homework. I mean, it’s not as though this is some sort of well guarded secret. There’s plenty of data that exists today talking about how large creators audiences are, how much money they are pulling in, the state of sponsorship deals, and more. It’s all out there, but you almost get the impression that the CRTC commissioners couldn’t be bothered with even attempting to figure any of this out.

The questions only got even more cringe-worthy:

6286 COMMISSIONER LEVY: So, in the lead‑up to the legislation and so forth, there were Canadian creators who make a living off YouTube and so forth, who were really concerned that we might, in the legislation and in the following regulations, damage their bs model. So, there was a carve‑out that said that none of this applies to user‑generated content that’s put on platforms. So, are you now saying that the people who wanted to make sure they weren’t covered now want to come back into the system? Let me be clear about that.

A part of me is glad I wasn’t in the room having to answer that question. I probably would’ve been banging my head against the table because of how out of touch such a question is.

To put it simply, this is not about whether or not creators should be “regulated” or not. There’s no “all or nothing” with this. What many digital first creators are asking for is to not have a CRTC that ends up destroying their careers. This is not freaking rocket science here. Creators don’t want to be downranked because a Canadian Heritage Moment is mandated to be ahead of their video’s. They don’t want their earnings from Adsense chopped in half because the CEO of Rogers needs another private yacht. They want status quo and not ending up with a system that assures them that they are failing regardless of the content they produced.

That’s it. That is all. They are calling on the CRTC to do no harm. People like us that these calls to “do no harm” will probably fall on deaf ears, but we’re here fighting to the bitter end before this ends up getting challenged in court. If it goes down like a lot of us think it is, then this legislation is just destined for the courts anyway. If the CRTC chooses to ignore this, then that just increases the ways that the Online Streaming Act gets challenged through the court system.

Scott Benzie was with digital creator, Fred Bastien who also helped offer some thoughts on these issues. The push of wanting to help those that have the best chance for success to succeed was not unreasonable by any means:

6303 You know, the difference is the way the funding ‑‑ sure, a lot of the needs are the same. But the way the funding models are built, like if the CMF is going to give somebody 75 per cent of their production budget to go out and get an accountant or a lawyer, get whatever help they need, that that’s again going to help a very, very, very small group of digital creators who are making content for nothing. You know, 75 per cent of zero is zero. So it’s really about helping those creators and helping creators that are doing it on their own, giving them access to, as you correctly pointed out, a lot of the same resources, but in a different way, I think is the way ‑‑

6304 MR. BASTIEN: You know, and my instinct is it’s very different, because I have friends that are aspiring filmmakers and that work in, you know, the cinema industry in Quebec and Montreal. And they certainly don’t think like creators in Digital First creators. They chose a path that is top‑down. They chose to pitch movies to say they can get financed, and then get ‑‑ they’re aspiring filmmakers. And YouTubers will just make their movie with their cellphones, and then next year they’ll buy a camera, and then the year after they buy two cameras. This is usually the way it ‑‑

6305 MR. BENZIE: We just want to accelerate that process that Fred is describing.

If we are to create a system that dolls out money from the platforms, why not put that money towards the creators who are succeeding online? The fear is that a system is being set up that says that the ones who are succeeding need to pay the legacy players who, by their own admission, is failing.

Also in the hearing, Bastien commented that he is skeptical of anyone in the legacy media that says that they know what is best for creators. He is right to be skeptical because, as he said, it’s the audience that decides these things in the digital realm. The idea that legacy creators get to puff out their chest and say that they know what their audiences want and can decide these things is a very long running attitude legacy media has.

That “authority” of someone saying “audiences want ‘this’, so we’re producing ‘this’ content” is, more often then not, only kidding themselves because no one really has those answers. The proof is in the fact that it’s those same legacy players running to the CRTC saying that if they don’t get a bunch of free money tomorrow, their businesses will fail. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how well that attitude of “I know best” is working out for the legacy players.

While Benzie and Bastien did everything they could under the circumstances, it’s hard to say whether the CRTC has any interest in really listening to their case. If anything, I’m more willing to believe that they are almost paid to not understand how the internet works.

The online creators had every right to be there and had every right to plead their case. They are in the right to do so and their actions should be applauded. The problem is, it’s hard to see the CRTC listening to common sense and reason at this stage. After all, they are basically an arm of the Trudeau government at this point and have been reduced to carry out their marching orders. If that means destroying Canadian’s futures to prop up the legacy media of the past, they are likely going to do it.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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