Experts clashed on Monday while discussing the government’s contentious Bill C-10, legislation to modernize the Broadcasting Act.
Four witnesses were invited to testify at the House of Commons Canadian Heritage committee, where MPs have paused clause-by-clause consideration to address concerns in the legislation, including that it would regulate social-media content.
Canada’s research chair in internet and e-commerce law, Michael Geist, was alone in warning the committee that C-10 will regulate social-media content through its discoverability requirements, which gives the Canadian Radio-television Commission (CRTC) power to demand social-media platforms give preference to content created by Canadian users.
“When you ask the government to decide what gets prioritized and what does not, that is absolutely regulation,” he said. “Deputizing platforms to enforce those government edicts, in many respects, are even worse, because they aren’t subject to some of the same kinds of restrictions.”
Bill C-10 was designed to update the Broadcasting Act to include online streaming services, which would allow the CRTC to seek financial contributions from online broadcasters such as Netflix, Spotify, Crave, and Disney Plus.
The bill would give the CRTC the power to: regulate these online streaming services; mandate payments for the creation of Canadian content; order discoverability requirements; and introduce fines for non-compliance.
Concern grew weeks ago, when the government removed its exclusion of social media and user-generated content from the proposed legislation during the committee’s clause-by-clause consideration.
Geist has been warning that the removal of the social-media exemption means all uploads, both professional and amateur, are treated as programs under the Act, and are therefore subject to CRTC regulation.
There is nothing in C-10 that would allow the CRTC to impose programming on someone, or to allow the regulator to censor content on platforms, said Pierre Trudel, a professor at the Public Law Research Centre at the University of Montreal.
The bill instead ensures individuals have a freedom to choose, he said.
“Currently, there is nothing that guarantees that online undertakings provide Canadians with real choice that reflects Canadian values as enshrined in the Broadcasting Act,” Trudel told MPs in French.
To those who say Bill C-10 fails to protect user-generated content, “That’s just wrong,” Janet Yale, chair of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, told the committee.
“To persist in creating this illusory scare of freedom of expression is either to misunderstand the legislation, in my view, or to intentionally seek to mislead people for some other purpose,” Yale said.
The bill already protects content, Yale said, and proposed amendments further clarify that platforms will only be regulated as far as: to provide information about a platform’s revenue; to use this information to calculate the platform’s levy requirement (to fund Canadian content); and to administer discoverability to make Canadian content available.
Geist said it’s already difficult to determine what constitutes Canadian content for certified productions, and “now were’ going to ask the CRTC what constitutes a Canadian cat video and what doesn’t.”
To gain confidence in the legislation, Geist said the government must re-add its social media exclusion or exclude all scope of regulation from user-generated content, including discoverability.