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Canadian Government Wants To Regulate Social Media Like Broadcast

Published: May 3, 2021
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Source: Tech Dirt

It’s Canada’s turn in the carousel of attempts at terrible internet regulation around the world. The ruling Liberal party, which professor and internet law researcher Michael Geist has called the most anti-internet government in Canadian history for its wide variety of planned new internet laws, has been working for months on a bill to amend the Broadcasting Act and greatly broaden its scope, giving the CRTC (Canada’s counterpart to the FCC) authority over all kinds of online video and audio.

Canada has a long history of requiring broadcasters to support and air Canadian content, setting percentages of airtime that must be dedicated to it. While this is controversial and of questionable efficacy, it is at least coherent with regards to television and radio broadcasting over public airwaves — but Bill C-10 would bring streaming services and many other websites under the same regulatory regime, which also includes even more concerning powers to regulate political speech. Supposedly, this is targeting services like Netflix and Spotify — which already raises some serious questions as to how such regulation would work — while the bill’s champion, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, has repeatedly insisted that it will not cover social media and user generated content. The clause excluding such content was already worryingly narrow, and now the government has removed it anyway. And yet Guilbeault continues to insist user generated content has nothing to worry about, even though there are multiple reasons this is clearly untrue — not least of which is a new "exception that proves the rule" amendment setting the contours of UGC regulation, to be considered soon:

The amendment is a clear acknowledgement that user generated content are programs subject to CRTC’s regulation making power. Liberal MPs may claim the bill doesn’t do this, but their colleagues are busy submitting amendments to address the reality.

But it is not just that the government knew that its changes would result in regulating user generated content. The forthcoming secret amendment only covers one of many regulations that the CRTC may impose. The specific regulation – Section 10(1)(c) of the Broadcasting Act – gives the CRTC the power to establish regulations “respecting standards of programs and the allocation of broadcasting time for the purpose of giving effect to the broadcasting policy set out in subsection 3(1).” While the government plans to remove that regulation from the scope of user generated content regulations, consider all the other regulations it intends to keep and impose on millions of Canadians. Regulations that are not found in the amendment and therefore applicable to user generated content include regulations:

(a) respecting the proportion of time that shall be devoted to the broadcasting of Canadian programs;

(b) prescribing what constitutes a Canadian program for the purposes of this Act;
(e) respecting the proportion of time that may be devoted to the broadcasting of programs, including advertisements or announcements, of a partisan political character and the assignment of that time on an equitable basis to political parties and candidates;

Each of these speak to potential new regulation on the free speech of Canadians. Most notable may be political speech, which gives the CRTC the power to order equal time for partisan political speech. While this was designed for broadcast networks, the legislation would now cover all programs, including user generated content.

It’s a stunning, virtually unprecedented attack on the free speech of Canadians. Among the bill’s biggest problems is the fact that many of these powers are extremely vague and administered at the discretion of the unpredictable CRTC — which is also part of what allows the politicians behind it to equivocate and deny when pressed on what exactly it will do. It has been called "one of the most radical expansions of state regulation in Canadian history" by those journalists who have noticed just how far-reaching it might be:

While the government claims it would not empower the CRTC to regulate smaller services such as Britbox, social media sites such as YouTube, or online news content, the bill contains no specific provisions that would prohibit it – and includes provisions that seem to allow it. For example, while the bill exempts “programs that are uploaded to an online undertaking” by its users and “online undertakings whose broadcasting consists only of such programs,” it leaves the way open for the CRTC to regulate services that show both user-generated and curated content. Like YouTube.

Likewise, lots of streaming services offer news content alongside movies and other fare. And lots of text-based news organizations, such as The Globe and Mail, also stream audio and video. So a specific exemption for audiovisual news content would not be greatly reassuring, even if the bill contained one – which it doesn’t.

Luckily, the bill is getting much more attention following the latest changes. Unluckily, it’s at risk of becoming mired in the broader partisan fights of Canada’s parliament — even though this is a case of something that everyone, from every party (not least the Liberals pushing it) should oppose. I don’t have to explain why applying such regulations, especially about political "balance", to social media would be a disaster for free speech, especially now with the pandemic keeping people trapped at home and spawning multiple political crises across the country. It’s not at all clear how the CRTC would use these powers, but there’s little reason to believe they’d use them wisely (as if such a thing is even possible), and the uncertainty alone could cause user generated content platforms to clamp down on what Canadians can share.

Plus, it’s especially concerning the way the government has repeatedly misled the public about what the bill will do, often contradicting itself and leaving the text full of loopholes that means it might apply to all kinds of unexpected things like app stores. Canadians from every part of the political spectrum must recognize Bill C-10 as the astonishing attack on free expression that it is, and force the government to reject it — or else the internet in Canada is going to get a whole lot smaller and less open.

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