I don’t want to alarm you, but you might like to know that the federal government is about to take over the media.
Perhaps you will think I am exaggerating. But before the spring is out, based on its own announced timeline, there won’t be a patch of grass on the media landscape – broadcasting or newspapers, digital or analog, curated or user-generated – that the government does not either regulate or subsidize or both. If takeover is not the word, what is?
Broadcasting, of course, fell to the state long ago. Every minute of every hour of every day of what is broadcast on Canadian radio and television is overseen by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), with its sprawling mandate to protect the public from material that is harmful, degrading or American. Though since much of the content it scrutinizes, classifies and regulates in such detail has already been put through the bureaucratic wringer at the front end via various subsidy councils, it hardly seems worth the effort.
The results are about as dire as you would expect – an industry that, after many decades of state nurturing, remains largely alien to the public it allegedly serves. Still, in television’s technological infancy there was probably no escaping this sort of thing. The relative scarcity of spectrum, and the industry’s abject reliance on advertising, for lack of any means to extract payment from viewers, made for a small number of stations, all showing much the same unadventurous fare. Regulation and subsidy were an attempt, however clumsy, to mimic the diversity of offerings in a well-functioning market.
So the advent of first cable and satellite, then pay TV, and finally, gloriously, the internet, with its seemingly infinite number of sites offering every kind of content from every corner of the Earth and catering to every conceivable type of taste, ought to have put an end to that, no? Regulation being neither necessary nor arguably even possible in the digital world, you would think the government would have packed in the whole project by now, wouldn’t you? You would think.
Instead, late last year, the Minister of Heritage, Steven Guilbeault, unveiled Bill C-10, the aim of which is to deliver the whole of the audiovisual internet, domestic or foreign, into the CRTC’s trembling hands. Rather than freeing the conventional broadcasters to follow their fleeing viewers online, the government proposes to subject streaming services to the same stultifying regulatory regime that made our television so unwatchable in the first place.
Newspaper publishers, meanwhile, have bullied the government into rescuing them from their worst enemies: themselves. Having made every imaginable error in response to the internet’s advance – first giving our content away at no charge, in the name of maximizing advertising revenue; then, when we found that advertisers had deserted us for Facebook and Google, demanding readers pay for the pleasure of scrolling through our impenetrable websites – the industry has since discovered the delights of state patronage, in the pleasing illusion that it will not affect our coverage, or that we will ever give it up.
The first tranche was delivered in the form of a five-year, $595-million bailout for “qualified” news organizations. The next is shortly to come in the form of legislation ordering Google and Facebook to transfer funds to our accounts – a bailout by another name. Supposedly this is to compensate us for all the content the online giants “steal” from us by linking to our pages, which is just as nonsensical as it sounds: the links, embedded in headlines and surrounded by short snippets of text (that’s the “content” they are “stealing”), have become our lifeblood, sending millions of readers our way free of charge.
And after that? Having added newspapers, broadcasters and internet video to its bulging portfolio, the government’s next target is social media. In yet a third bill to be introduced this session, the government has declared it will regulate the content posted by users on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
How far it will go is as yet unclear: in teaser interviews, the Minister has mentioned hate speech, incitement to violence, terrorist propaganda, child pornography and what is delicately referred to as “non-consensual sharing of intimate content” as the legislation’s intended objects – all of which are illegal already. But he is being urged to go further, including by those reliable bellwethers of Liberal interventionism, the Public Policy Forum.
In a report earlier this year, a panel commissioned by the PPF called for a sweeping set of regulations to apply to the broader penumbra of material that is “lawful but awful” – not only the usual list of -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) but the heady brew of disinformation, conspiracy theories and other dementia that has so conspicuously addled the brains of our neighbours to the south.
To be sure, the panel does not call for direct government regulation of content; the Minister would not be signing off on every post. Rather, it would be done indirectly, discreetly, at arm’s length. Platforms would be subjected to an as-yet undefined Duty to Act Responsibly, complete with a Code of Conduct and a regulator to enforce it. A separate tribunal would be set up to hear specific complaints about content, while still another body, the Social Media Council, would ensure the platforms’ operators were under constant pressure from “civil society.”
That social media is often a social ill is not in doubt. What is in doubt is whether remedying these ills should be entrusted to the state, even in – especially in – the velvety form the panel proposes. At the least we should be sure we have explored all other options. The platforms have already begun to move away from their formerly hands-off approach to the flood of horrific content that appears on their sites, recognizing the damage this was doing to their reputations.
More perhaps could be done to encourage them in this newfound sense of editorial responsibility, not by intervening in decisions about content, but by altering the foundations of the companies’ business models – the algorithms that dictate which sorts of posts are promoted, the data on readers’ choices that is used to target ads at them – and the incentives these may create to propagate, spread and amplify harmful content. Alas, I fear the government will instead contrive to make a bad situation worse.
I said I didn’t wish to alarm you. Let me retract that. If the government were only putting all of the country’s newspapers on its payroll, or imposing Canadian content quotas on YouTube, or snooping through people’s tweets, it would be worrying enough. But as it is proposing to do all three at the same time, I think a little alarm is in order.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.