A few months after he was appointed Heritage Minister following the 2019 federal election, Steven Guilbeault made a shocking declaration regarding the recommendation of a panel advising his government on amending the Broadcasting Act to regulate foreign internet giants.
“Frankly, I don’t see what the big deal is,” Mr. Guilbeault told CTV’s Question Period in early 2020. “I mean, we have an incredible number of international corporations that are operating in Canada in all sorts of sectors … and these companies comply with Canadian rules and laws.”
For a rookie minister, Mr. Guilbeault sure showed a lot of gumption by suggesting his government’s plan to bring foreign websites under the purview of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission was no big deal when the opposite was true. Empowering the CRTC to regulate foreign internet companies would turn the broadcasting regulator into a digital gatekeeper overseeing limitless amounts of content on the web. A big deal, indeed.
Mr. Guilbeault’s declaration left experts in the field fearing that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had made the same mistake twice by naming a political novice to the Heritage portfolio during the greatest period of disruption to rock the Canadian broadcasting sector since the advent of television. After Mélanie Joly’s bumbling performance during Mr. Trudeau’s first term, the PM took a major gamble by once again placing responsibility for Broadcasting Act changes in such inexperienced hands.
It has not gone well.
When Mr. Guilbeault tabled the Broadcasting Modernization Act, or Bill C-10, last November, the legislation included an article that specifically excluded from CRTC regulation any “programs” uploaded by individuals to social media platforms. Canadian cat lovers could rest assured that the state would not censor videos they posted of their feline friends on Facebook. Except that, Liberal and New Democratic MPs on the House of Commons heritage committee last week removed Article 4.1 from C-10, apparently at the urging of lobbyists for Canadian content producers who warned the exemption would allow music streamers such as YouTube to remain unregulated.
Critics argued that removing Article 4.1 opened the door to the blanket regulation of user content on social media. Mr. Guilbeault denied this was the government’s intention. But he failed to dispel doubts that the bill (sans Article 4.1) threatened freedom of expression, and perhaps violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In a disastrous interview last week on CBC’s Power & Politics, Mr. Guilbeault left critics dumfounded by insisting that the CRTC, “in its more than 40 years of existence, has never moderated content that we hear on the radio [or] that we see on TV.” Was he simply unaware of the Canadian content requirements that the CRTC includes in every broadcasting licence? Or was he just winging it?
Mr. Guilbeault went on to say that Article 4.1 was removed from C-10 because it was “not necessary.” But if it was not necessary, why had it been included in the bill in the first place? Mr. Guilbeault had no answer for that. The following day, on Twitter, he promised additional amendments to fix the bill.
It is likely too late for that. In a bid to repair the damage done by Ms. Joly, who alienated domestic cultural honchos by touting a “voluntary” 2017 agreement with Netflix to invest in Canadian content, Mr. Trudeau vowed in 2019 to force foreign streaming services to fund domestic programming. But C-10 goes too far in granting sweeping powers to the CRTC and federal cabinet to regulate internet services. No democratic government elsewhere has dared contemplate anything like it. Oddly, C-10 purports to bring the Broadcasting Act into the digital age, yet is silent on the CBC – despite the vast changes in the news and programming landscape since the act was last overhauled in 1991.
Mr. Guilbeault was handed a tricky job by Mr. Trudeau, one that might even have tripped up a more experienced player in Ottawa. The Trudeau Liberals made things worse by leaning too heavily on Mr. Guilbeault, a former high-profile Quebec environmentalist, to craft and sell its climate change policies. That has undoubtedly distracted him from his main responsibilities as Heritage Minister.
Still, it was a mistake to hand the Heritage portfolio to a former enviro activist known for taking on big business and fighting for more government regulation. Once an activist always an activist. And regulating the internet is a far bigger deal than Mr. Guilbeault has ever been prepared to admit.
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