Ottawa’s drive to restrict web content jeopardizes the right to free expression.
The Liberal government has stated that the contentious amendments to the broadcasting bill would apply only to technical content.
The federal government is facing backlash over contentious amendments to a bill that would subject videos and other material shared on social media platforms such as YouTube to the country’s broadcasting regulator.
Bill C-10 has been amended at the request of Liberal MPs on the heritage committee to enable the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to regulate user-generated content posted to social media sites in the same way as it currently regulates radio and television content.
According to the government, the amendments extend only to professional content and are required to ensure that massively popular online video platforms and applications contribute to Canadian culture.
However, opponents contend that they constitute an unjustified assault on the Charter’s guarantee of free expression.
What you need to know is as follows.
What is the aim of Bill C-10?
In November, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault introduced Bill C-10. The stated goal was to modernize the Broadcasting Act in light of the growing online and mobile consumption of music, movies, television shows, videos, and podcasts by Canadians.
According to the government, the goal is to ensure that digital streaming platforms benefiting from increased online traffic contribute to the growth, development, and promotion of Canadian content.
Unlike online outlets, Canadian providers of broadcast material, such as Rogers, Shaw, and Bell, are expected to contribute a portion of their income to the Canada Media Fund, a government-funded organization that supports Canadian programming. Additionally, CRTC-regulated broadcasters are expected to air a certain amount of Canadian content on radio and television.
Bill C-10, if passed, would bring online streaming services operating in Canada — such as Netflix, Spotify, Crave, and Amazon Prime — under the Broadcasting Act, enabling the CRTC to enforce similar regulations.
Such regulations could force them to contribute to funds supporting Canadian musicians, authors, and artists, or to increase the visibility of Canadian content on their platforms.
How about those divisive amendments?
In its original form, Bill C-10 exempted from the CRTC’s jurisdiction user-generated material posted on social media sites.
This meant that while professionally produced shows and songs streamed on Crave, Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Spotify would be controlled by the CRTC, music videos on YouTube, Facebook posts, and podcasts posted to Apple Podcasts would be excluded — since they are uploaded by individual users to those platforms.
Guilbeault himself made a point of highlighting these exclusions when introducing the bill in the House. “Our strategy is balanced, and we have chosen to exempt those areas from the new regime,” Guilbeault told members of Parliament. “There will be no regulation of user-generated content.”
However, members of the heritage committee eliminated the exclusion for user-generated content last Friday. Additionally, another amendment approved by the committee on Monday would empower the CRTC to control mobile applications.
Why are some individuals concerned?
According to critics, these amendments will empower the CRTC to monitor the millions of posts made daily by Canadians on websites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
Michael Geist, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in internet law, suggested that such posts could be classified as “programs,” allowing the regulator to impose terms and conditions on the content.
“The type of speech that many Canadians participate in on these platforms is simply fundamental freedom of expression that does not require, and should not be subject to, any kind of control or regulatory oversight by a broadcast regulator,” Geist explained.
Google, which owns YouTube, has also expressed concerns about free expression.
“This could theoretically expand CRTC legislation to all audio and video content on the internet,” the company said in a statement to the media. “We continue to be concerned about unintended consequences, especially the impact on Canadians’ expressive rights.”
Camille Gagné-Raynauld, Guilbeault’s press secretary, said Bill C-10 is intended to target platforms that curate and commission music and video material, as well as “professional shows, films, and music,” rather than posts made by individual Canadians.
“Where content posted by individual users is selected by a platform and considered to have a major effect, the platform, rather than the users, may be subject to the Broadcasting Act,” Gagné-Raynauld wrote in an emailed statement.
Gagné-Raynauld added that provisions for free speech had also been incorporated into the legislation.
Jérôme Payette is the general manager of the Association des professionnels de l’édition musicale in Canada, an organization that represents French-language music publishers. He claimed that the absence of user-generated content created a loophole that would have enabled YouTube to circumvent CRTC control — despite the fact that it is one of the most prominent music platforms in Canada.
Payette stated that the updated version of Bill C-10 would increase transparency about the way Canadian content is posted on YouTube by forcing the company to report to the regulator and appear at public hearings.
“What we’re after is a complete image of what’s happening on YouTube in terms of technical content,” Payette said. “Once we know that, then we can implement discoverability initiatives that favor Canadian music. We can even make them finance music.”
Could regulators exercise influence over what individuals share on social media?
According to the federal government, Bill C-10 is not intended to regulate user-generated content.
“[Bill C-10] prohibits the government [or] the CRTC from moderating material, determining published topics or subjects, or enforcing the removal of content that violates Canadian content requirements,” Gagné-Raynauld said.
Thus, cat videos and amateur musicians’ acoustic covers of Taylor Swift songs are expected to be healthy.
However, the CRTC will have considerable discretion in deciding how to exercise its new authority — and questions regarding regulatory overreach remain.
“If they want to control directly what these platforms do, they need to be clear and specific,” said Emily Laidlaw, Canada research chair in cybersecurity law at the University of Calgary. “However, that is not how the bill is written.”
What about the bill’s political implications?
The bill is currently being reviewed clause by clause by the heritage committee, with the next meeting scheduled for Friday. To pass it, the Liberals would need the support of at least one opposition party.
The Conservative Party has urged the government to withdraw Bill C-10 amendments.
“Conservatives support leveling the playing field between massive international streaming platforms and domestic broadcasters, but not at the expense of Canadians’ fundamental rights and freedoms,” Conservative heritage critic Alain Rayes said.
Jagmeet Singh, the NDP leader, said this week that he is open to voting in favor of the bill.
“We will carefully review the amendments and the bill before making a final determination,” Singh said, signaling that his party supports tighter enforcement of misinformation and hate speech on social media sites.
Martin Champoux, a member of the Bloc Québécois, said the Conservatives’ fears about free expression are exaggerated.
“The Conservatives must refrain from instilling false fears about the bill,” Champoux said. “We shall immediately resume work on C-10. For years, the industry has pressed for a reform of the legislation.”