A Liberal MP has asked the lobbying commissioner to investigate an outspoken critic of the federal government’s online-streaming bill for failing to immediately disclose funding from YouTube and TikTok.
The Heritage Minister’s Parliamentary secretary, Chris Bittle, has asked Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger to launch an investigation into Digital First Canada, an organization that advocates for YouTubers and people posting videos on platforms.
The letter alleges that Digital First’s executive director, Scott Benzie, failed to disclose that his group received funding from YouTube and TikTok. Both platforms have warned that Bill C-11 would lead to the regulation of people posting videos on their platforms and affect their popularity and earnings worldwide.
The letter says that during an appearance at the Commons heritage committee to talk about Bill C-11 in May, Mr. Benzie disclosed that Digital First received around $100,000 in sponsorship from platforms.
“There was no transparency about this relationship and any potential conflicts of interest prior to Digital First Canada’s appearance at the committee,” the letter from Mr. Bittle to the lobbying commissioner says.
At a previous meeting of the Heritage committee where Mr. Benzie discussed C-11, he did not tell MPs Digital First has received money from YouTube and TikTok.
Mr. Bittle also asked the commissioner to probe funding of the Buffer festival – an event for creators on YouTube – which Mr. Benzie runs and which he says is his advocacy group’s main source of funding.
Mr. Benzie told The Globe and Mail the festival receives “under $85,000″ in sponsorship from digital platforms to help it cover costs that include flying YouTube creators to appear at the festival.
In his letter, also signed by Lisa Hepfner, another Liberal member of the heritage committee, Mr. Bittle alleges “Digital First Canada, YouTube and/or TikTok” are in violation of the lobbyists’ code of conduct.
The code says a lobbyist must “when communicating with a public office holder disclose the identity of the person, organization or corporation on whose behalf the communication is made and the nature of their relationship with that person, organization or corporation ...”
Mr. Benzie, who will give evidence to the Senate committee about Bill-C11 on Wednesday, told The Globe he has checked more than once with the commissioner’s office to see if he has correctly complied with lobbying rules, and has been assured he has done so.
Mr. Benzie questioned the motivation of the minister’s parliamentary secretary in referring him to the lobbying commissioner. He said the MP had not asked for a probe into organizations receiving outside funding, both public and private that have given evidence in favour of Bill C-11.
“We are not trying to break any rules. We are trying to advocate on behalf of digital creators,” he said. “It’s kind of hypocritical that some of those lobbying for this legislation are funded by the government.”
Mr. Benzie said he was speaking out about the bill because no other group was representing the views of individuals posting videos on YouTube – including “creators making $16 a month” – and he was concerned about the impact of the legislation on their livelihoods.
“I don’t want to be a lobbyist. When we launched Digital First Canada, we launched it without funding from anybody,” he said. “The fact that the government is trying to shut us down is a real issue.”
The online streaming bill aims to modernize the broadcasting act to cover platforms including YouTube, TikTok, Spotify and Netflix.
The government has said the bill would not regulate user-generated content such as cat videos, only commercial material such as professionally produced music videos. YouTube has warned that as worded, the bill could cover virtually all content posted on the platform.
Bill C-11 is currently being debated in Parliament and was sharply criticized on Tuesday in a Senate committee by YouTube creators and experts in broadcast law.
Monica Auer, executive director of Forum for Research and Policy in Communications, told Senators the bill is “incoherent, makes errors and leaves gaps.”
She said it would empower the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to regulate user-uploaded content and users directly and indirectly.
Irene Berkowitz, a senior policy fellow at Toronto Metropolitan University, appearing as an individual, said the bill could harm a “tremendously vibrant and exuberant sector.” She said it would “send UGC [user-generated content] producers scurrying across the border to upload.”
YouTube digital creator Justin Tomchuk said the bill could have “massive consequences” for his business and his ability to reach an international audience. He said he could see a scenario where the bill would force contributors to “leave the country entirely.”
He also warned the obligation on platforms to promote Canadian content [CanCon] could lead to people being fed videos “mismatched with their interests.”
“You can force a video to play but you can’t force them to watch it. Canadians will click away and learn to actively avoid CanCon,” he predicted.
J.J. McCullough, a social commentator on YouTube, told the committee that dozens of creators were concerned about the government forcing platforms like YouTube to push Canadian content audiences may not want to watch.
He raised concerns about the new powers the bill would give the CRTC to regulate platforms and said it remains unclear how the broadcast regulator “will interpret their mandate.”
“It is anti-democratic to give an unelected body so much power,” he said.
Mr. Bittle said digital creators “make important contributions to our culture” but he said tech giants “have failed to be transparent in their support to at least one organization.”
“Canadians deserve to know the influence tech giants have in this debate,” he said.
Mr. Bittle’s letter, sent last month, asks the lobbying commissioner to ensure that tech companies “publicly disclose all organizations and individuals to whom they provide financial and in-kind benefits to preserve the public’s confidence in the transparency of lobbying in Canada.”
Manon Dion, a spokeswoman for the Lobbying Commissioner, who probes alleged breaches of lobbying rules, confirmed the office had received the letter, but did not say whether an investigation has been launched.
“As with all allegations of non-compliance with the Lobbying Act or the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct, we conduct a preliminary assessment to determine the appropriate next steps,” she said.
YouTube spokesperson Zaitoon Murji said she would not comment on what she called “spurious allegations.”
“Digital First Canada has provided a forum to defend and raise the voices of digital creators whose livelihoods are at stake in the debate over this legislation. We’re proud to support their work,” she said.
Danielle Morgan, a spokesperson for TikTok, said the platform is “proud to support Digital First Canada’s advocacy on behalf of independent online creators, whose interests aren’t otherwise represented by existing guilds or associations.”