Since its introduction in Parliament a month ago, Bill C-10, “An Act to Amend the Broadcasting Act,” has attracted relatively little attention. This is extraordinary, as the bill represents one of the most radical expansions of state regulation in Canadian history.
In brief, the government proposes to regulate the internet, or at least that part of it that is expressed in audio and video form. Henceforth, not only would conventional “broadcast undertakings” be subject to the officious fantasies of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), but so would all “online undertakings” – streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify – so long as they have Canadian subscribers.
No, the bill does not appear to go as far as the January recommendations from the federal Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, or not yet: Measures such as a “link tax” forcing social media platforms such as Facebook to compensate news organizations for linking to their sites (yes, you read that right), have been put off for future legislation. But just how far the state’s regulatory tentacles will now extend will depend in large part on how the CRTC interprets its new powers – and the bill’s language gives plenty of room to worry.
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.
If that sounds paranoid, consider the weight the government puts on its assurances that online broadcasters would not have to be “licensed.” That’s true, as far as it goes. They would just be obliged to “register” with the CRTC, subject to certain “conditions of service,” enforced by “fines.”
What do those conditions add up to? The unregulated online services that today allow millions of Canadian viewers to escape the stultifying grip of the CRTC, and the impenetrable CanCon racket that is its primary raison d’être, will henceforth be absorbed into the same regulatory-industrial complex that has made conventional Canadian TV so unwatchable.
Not only will they be required to pay, either directly or via some compulsory industry fund, to make more Canadian programs, but they will be obliged to post certified Canadian content prominently on their sites – where it will be ignored every bit as fervently as it is now. You can lead a horse to culture, but you can’t make it watch.
The supposed rationale for all this is to “level the playing field” with conventional Canadian broadcasters, who are struggling mightily – poor dears – to support the production of Canadian content all by themselves. But as the University of Ottawa’s Michael Geist never tires of pointing out, every word of this is false. Far from a shortage, there’s a positive glut of CanCon (domestic film and television production is, or was pre-pandemic, at an all-time high), to which Netflix, in particular, is already among the largest contributors.
Neither is the playing field noticeably unlevel: Online broadcasters may not currently be subject to the CanCon regime’s byzantine regulations, but neither are they the beneficiaries of its many favours, from simultaneous substitution to production subsidies. Nor is anything stopping Canadians from watching CanCon if they so choose – certainly not the belatedly invented problem of “discoverability.” If Canadian viewers want it, the streaming services will give it to them.
That wasn’t always the case: In television’s early days, there were only a few stations, and those were financed by advertising, with its well-known bias toward the top-rated (read: American) shows. But that is no longer the world we are in. Pay TV abolished the need for advertising; the internet abolished spectrum scarcity.
It’s true that it makes no sense to have one set of regulations for conventional broadcasters and another for online. That ought to have meant getting rid of the existing regulatory order. Instead, the government is attempting to draw the entire internet into its ghastly embrace. Can it possibly imagine it will succeed?
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.