Canadian Government Wants To Regulate Social Media Like Broadcast

from the not-gonna-work dept

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.

Correction: The way the bill is worded, online services are apparently not covered by the "political balance" regulatory powers.

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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Filed Under: audio, c-10, canada, content moderation, crtc, internet, internet freedom, regulations, social media, steven guilbeault, streaming, video


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  • icon
    Jojo (profile), 30 Apr 2021 @ 12:21pm

    I am disappointed in you Canada

    I understood shit like this would come through the European Union of Oceania and the U.S., but Canada’s choice really does get my blood boiling. Throughout the Trump era, I thought that Canada was going to be the better half of America. But when C-10 was unveiled, how it throws free speech out like it threw a person out of a speeding train, now I’m not even sure anymore. Please, those who are rational in the Canadian government, oppose this digital Holocaust.

    You’re better than this Canada. You’re better than this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 30 Apr 2021 @ 12:35pm

    I don't have to explain why applying such regulations, especially about political "balance", to social media would be a disaster for free speech

    What’s sad is that yes, you kinda do have to. But I can do that for you.

    See, plenty of people in the world think LGBTQ people are abominations unto God and must be “cured” of their “sin”. Such anti-gay activists may share propaganda about the discredited practice of psychological (and often physical) torture that is “conversion ‘therapy’ ” (or whatever name it goes by these days). Those activists tend to sit, far more often than not, on the side of conservatives.

    A regulation designed for “viewpoint balance” would force any social media service to host that propaganda. Why? Simple: The pro–“conversion ‘therapy’ ” activists can say their view is “political” and “one side of the story” vis-á-vis LGBTQ rights and such. Any LGBTQ people on a social media service forced to host such speech would thus abandon that service in a heartbeat. While they will have access to other outlets, losing an outlet that made them feel less marginalized — especially because the outlet was forced by the government to make nice with bigots — will have a devastating effect on their mental health.

    To anyone who thinks otherwise, I have One Simple Question for you. Yes or no: Should a government have the right, under the guise of “protecting political speech”, to force a social media service designed as a safe space for marginalized people into hosting speech that attacks and marginalizes those people?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 3 May 2021 @ 12:49am

      Re:

      "What’s sad is that yes, you kinda do have to. But I can do that for you."

      I myself have more or less given up hope on the modern state of government. Honestly we're at the point where I'm just looking forward to the end of the ensuing catastrophe when every lunacy proposed has been implemented the results are in, and every party involved in pushing that agenda has become a persona non grata forced into exile by the raging mobs the citizenry devolved in.

      50 years down this road the online environment will enjoy the same protections as the real world, copyright will be dead, no one is going to pretend forcing a platform to host the racists and bigots is "free speech", and net neutrality will be as commonly understood as utilities like electricity and water.

      But until then we're just going to have to see the clowns in the ring running their political parties into self-destruction and settle down for the idea that the future of the online environment will consist of darknets only.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 May 2021 @ 9:57am

      Re:

      To anyone who thinks otherwise, I have One Simple Question for you. Yes or no: Should a government have the right, under the guise of “protecting political speech”, to force a social media service designed as a safe space for marginalized people into hosting speech that attacks and marginalizes those people?

      Yes it should.

      Otherwise the very notion of free speech becomes free speech***** with certain topics effectively banned from public discourse because there will always be someone willing to subjugate others over their political views.

      As someone who read the image you posted: "This space will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be, but it will be ours together and we will work on it side by side." You can't work on anything if you constantly shove your head into the sand. Which is what these bans do. It's codifying arrogance and hatred to shut down debate. Which is exactly what the Right to Freedom of Speech is meant to prevent: To maintain the public's ability to reach consensus for the purpose of self-governance.

      Flip the question: Should a social media service designed as a safe space for bigoted people be forced into hosting speech that promotes the very ideas that they hate? Remember: "bigoted" is a relative term.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Apr 2021 @ 1:42pm

    A long time ago, a comedy show shooting in Toronto was told that if they didn't have 5 minutes of Canadian content per show, they'd be kicked out of the studio they were using. The cast of SCTV responded with Bob & Doug MacKenzie, who proceeded to become a media sensation that utterly humiliated the Canadian government. Maybe it's time for more Canadian themed comedy!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Apr 2021 @ 2:29pm

    How likely is the bill to be taken down in court?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Jojo (profile), 30 Apr 2021 @ 4:38pm

      Re:

      Well first the bill has to become a law. The structure of the government of Canada is odd, it’s a hybrid of American lawmaking process and the structure of a parliamentary democracy. The Liberal Party has a slight majority in the House of Commons, but if it has any chance of passing, it is through there. But chances of the bill passing through the senate is a little less clearer since the majority is controlled by a loose conglomerate of independent senators. The Liberal Party doesn’t have any representation in the senate oddly. So it’ll depend on whether or not it will pass the senate.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Drew Wilson, 30 Apr 2021 @ 5:37pm

        Re: Re:

        "The Liberal Party has a slight majority in the House of Commons"

        That's not actually true. The Liberal Party currently has a minority in the House of Commons. They need the help of at least one other party (not including the Green Party) to pass anything. That is why the media made such a stink about the upcoming budget for a while because it was a confidence motion. Should a confidence motion fail to pass, Canada would go into an election. In a minority situation, that is technically possible. Then, the NDP suggested that they would support it which effectively killed the media's election obsession for the time being.

        As for the possibility this would pass, there are actually reasons why the Bloc or the Conservatives would support it. The Conservatives might support this legislation because it opens up the possibility of censoring things they don't like (partly through the 'must present both sides of the debate' requirements). The Bloc might support it because it sells itself as a way of protecting culture through so-called "Canadian Content" requirements.

        The overruling part of this whole thing is time (which killed tonnes of bad copyright laws in the last decade and a half). At latest, the next election in Canada is set for 2023 (which is about two years away). The question is, how fast will this bill move through the legislative process. If it moves quickly (which it hasn't been so far), then it's possible that this could become law. If it moves at the current pace, then it's possible that it'll die on the order-paper. Canadian's don't actually have to pressure the government to shelve this legislation, they just need to raise enough of a stink about it to delay it in time for the next election. That is where I see how this bill will most likely fail and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Canada winds up going down this path.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Apr 2021 @ 5:01pm

      Re:

      Given that Canada's Supreme Court holds that Canadians' constitutional Right To Life means that the government can compel doctors to euthanize you at your request – or refer you to one that will – regardless of said doctors religious or moral beliefs… *waggles hand* *shrugs*

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        R.H. (profile), 1 May 2021 @ 1:00am

        Re: Re:

        The "Right to Life" is also the right to control when my life ends if possible. Also, if a doctor isn't comfortable (or has some religious or moral issue) with performing a procedure, I understand. However, that discomfort shouldn't allow the doctor to withhold knowledge of another doctor who is willing to perform the procedure.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 1 May 2021 @ 1:59am

    If you don't plan on using it then you don't need the power

    You can always tell when politicians are lying about bills like this 'not doing that' when they leave open holes or add in 'exceptions' relating to those actions, and merely promise that they would never make use of the power they just granted themselves.

    If a bill isn't intended to allow X and that's been raised as a concern then it should be immediately rewritten such that under no reading of the bill could X be done, anything less should be seen and treated as an admission that allowing/enabling X is one of if not the primary goal of the bill.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    nerdrage (profile), 1 May 2021 @ 10:04am

    clueless governments again sigh

    Netflix et al are global platforms. They have to be. You can't spend billions and charge peanuts without huge efficiencies of scale that you can only get from tapping into a global audience.

    So that means Netflix needs content to serve the world, not just this or that country. If every country wants to carve out their chunk, and why wouldn't they all do this, then Netflix will have quotas far in excess of 100% when they're all added up.

    So then Netflix responds by eliminating content that it otherwise would have the rights to, based on national quotas. And there goes the chance to get rid of everybody's favorite thing, geoblocking.

    And imagine when Disney+ becomes a serious force (they're catching up with Netflix fast). How is that going to work? Is Canada going to demand a Disney princess movie about a lumberjack or something? Princess Hoser, here we come.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 3 May 2021 @ 12:55am

      Re: clueless governments again sigh

      Even better. Given that it's social media we're talking about, wouldn't this new law mandate that at least 5% of Facebook would have to be canadian?

      I can see a few ramifications even now and they are ugly.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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