Get with the program, Bell

At this week’s Canadian Telecom Summit, Mary Ann Turcke gave her first public speech as President of Bell Media (Ms. Turcke formerly held the position of Group President, Media Sales, Local TV and Radio for Bell Media). The speech presented an opportunity for Bell’s management to distance itself from the unpopular views of recently-ousted Kevin Crull, whose controversial stance on editorial independence did much to tarnish Bell’s attempts to position itself as a trusted provider of communication services.

Unfortunately, the opportunity was squandered, as Ms. Turcke chose to spend her time accusing Canadians who access American Netflix of theft, and to suggest that the state should step in to protect Bell’s closed, proprietary approach to the content business. Her gaffe has been making the rounds in the media, where there has been clear and universal opposition to the idea that we should be “embarrassed” about exercising choice over our sources of entertainment.

Journalist Peter Nowak did a nice job of pointing out that Bell is in no position to occupy the moral high ground: how can Bell accuse ordinary Canadians of theft, when it itself purchases the exclusive Canadian rights to popular HBO and Showtime content, but hoards it by requiring subscribers to also purchase expensive cable TV subscriptions, rather than making it available to all Canadians like Netflix, or like Rogers’ and Shaw’s streaming competitor shomi has recently done?

Nowak scores a further point by noting that Turcke scolded her own teenage daughter for “stealing” American Netflix content—which is all the more ironic, since one would expect the Turcke household to have unlimited access to the broadcasting services Bell provides.

Former CRTC Commissioner Timothy Denton, who is known for having spent his time at the Commission fighting regulation of Internet content, and advocating for effective wholesale Internet agreements for third-party ISPs, pans Bell’s position in a recent blog post. Denton, in his typical style, does not mince words in turning the tables on Bell’s argument that we “thieves” should be ashamed of ourselves:

“I think that people [e.g. Bell] ought to feel ashamed of using state-issued and private licences to gouge the consumer, repress usage, drive out rivals, and limit choice…”

Michael Geist, respected expert and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, points out in his weekly column in the Toronto Star that Bell’s claim of illegality is dubious at best, unconvincing, and “smacks of business desperation” unbecoming of a company who frequently claims that it is a leading innovator in the telecom and broadcasting industries. The irony of Turcke’s claims thickens when one considers that running to the government for protection is anything but innovative; in fact, it’s the oldest trick in the book for Canadian broadcasters.

Like Geist, York University lecturer and long-time consumer advocate David Ellis points out (as he as done numerous times in the past) that use of identity-masking VPN technology is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of cultural protectionism. True, some people may be using VPNs for entertainment purposes, but Ellis reminds us that in an age of pervasive government and corporate surveillance, attacking a tool used by many to protect their legitimate right to privacy would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Instead of fear mongering and protectionist hysteria, Ellis suggests that we need to take a long, hard look at our outdated communication laws and the policy objectives that they purportedly seek to achieve.

Even the Beaverton, Canada’s version of “The Onion,” has piled on with a satirical send-up of Turcke’s comments that imagines how Bell might seek to punish the scores of “thieves” who are undermining the virtuous dissemination of Canadian content such as “The Amazing Race Canada” and “Canadian Idol.”

The Beaverton’s article jokingly suggests that Bell will punish users caught “stealing” American Netflix by subjecting them to 3-year contracts for “Bell’s spotty internet quality, the uselessness of having a home phone in the cell phone era and the hundreds of unwatched channels included with a classic television bundle package.”

I would laugh at the suggestion, if I wasn’t already crying. Just the other day I received the following advertisement in the mail slot at my Ottawa-area apartment:

“Bundling just got better” (could it have gotten any worse?)

In the fine print, you find that Bell is now offering customers the “opportunity” to take advantage of a 3-year contract for bundled Internet, telephone, and cable TV (IPTV) services. Getting out my microscope, I was disappointed to learn that the terms of this contract include that “Any portion of the Bell Bundle Program may be modified, discontinued, or terminated at any time” and that “Bell is not obligated to provide the Bundle Discount for the duration of any term contract.” Perhaps most galling, the terms note that “Early termination charges may apply”, although we’re not told what those might be.

In this light, it looks like the Beaverton’s satire was too clever by half.

Conspicuous in its absence has been any support for Bell’s position in the media. While the rest of the industry, the regulator, the government, and the public are moving in the direction of breaking down barriers to choice and innovation in the digital communication world, Bell appears to be furiously sticking its fingers in the dam. How long Bell’s obstinacy will last is anyone’s guess, but with comments like those Turcke gave straight-faced to an audience full of industry executives, experts, and journalists last week, it doesn’t look like things at Canada’s largest communication company will change for the better any time soon. If you ask me, it’s time to get with the program.

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