If you believe my current Twitter feed, the Liberal government in Ottawa has misplaced its mind along with all democratic norms and is about to pass a law that will censor Canadians’ internet activity. Apparently, no funny cat video, let alone sneaky political GIF, will ever be safe again as Big Brother Justin rips page after page from China’s notoriously intrusive internet policies. One defiant wit, in the dying days of his free expression, recently posted an old socialist realist painting of Mao onto whose head he had cleverly morphed Justin Trudeau’s face. Meanwhile, in an opinion piece published in the National Post Saturday, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole began quoting George Orwell, telling Canadians the Liberals might start monitoring their Facebook groups and their comments on news stories.
Well, the truth is that Trudeau and Mao share neither the same hairline nor the same politics. The alarm over supposed censorship is overblown and misplaced. It is fuelled by dishonest politicking from O’Toole and the Conservatives, and predictable paranoia from technological fundamentalists, those who believe the heaven-sent internet should not be subject to any human law – disinformation and election interference be damned.
What is really going on is that a parliamentary committee is working its way through Bill C-10, the Liberals’ much-needed and much-delayed update of the Broadcasting Act. That bill, which looks increasingly unlikely to make it into law before an election is called, states that foreign streaming services (such as Netflix, Spotify and YouTube) are broadcasting in Canada, so so they should be subject to regulation by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission – though the bill leaves the CRTC to figure out most of the details.
If you aren’t convinced that the CRTC is too busy trying to regulate commercial media distributing professional content to bother with your cat videos or Facebook chatter, then read the act, which has always stated: “This Act shall be construed and applied in a manner that is consistent with the freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence enjoyed by broadcasting undertakings …” That’s not changing.
Meanwhile, the bill would also add a clause stating individuals uploading content aren’t considered to be broadcasting. So, if you will permit me a mixed metaphor, cat videos are a red herring.
What became contentious at the committee was the Liberals’ decision to remove a loophole they had inadvertently placed in the bill. The loophole – Section 4.1 – also stated that the rules would not apply to content uploaded by users, or to platforms whose content consists primarily of such uploads. Sounds great. Individual citizens can upload whatever they want to social-media sites without fear of being somehow caught up in CRTC regulations, even if the act already stipulates it isn’t intended to cover non-commercial activity. So a belt-and-suspenders solution – two clauses, one exempting individuals and the other exempting content on social media. Cat lovers could rest easy.
The trouble is that 4.1 would effectively exempt Facebook and YouTube altogether and, for starters, the latter is actually Canadians’ leading choice for streaming music, as professional musicians upload their own videos to the site. The clause would have created a situation in which the CRTC could require a subscription service such as Spotify to reveal how much Canadian music it featured and how it promoted those tracks, but not ask the same of YouTube, leaving the country’s top music service untouched.
And that is why the Liberals, once their error was pointed out, tried to drop the loophole – while the Conservatives, spying political opportunity, began sounding the censorship alarm. Maybe the Tories are just trying to make the Liberals look bad in the run-up to that inevitable election. Maybe they have been listening to too many big-tech lobbyists. Certainly, they care little for Canada’s creative industries: They avoided this tricky but crucial file during their recent decade in office, never introducing legislation to update cultural protections and labelling their own bureaucrats’ attempts to apply the GST to digital services as a “Netflix tax.”
The Liberals, meanwhile, have moved frustratingly slowly on the cultural portfolio after spending their first term studying the problem. They have finally said in recent budget statements that they will apply the GST to Netflix bills and Google ads – a bit of housekeeping also years overdue – but they are now messing up the delivery of a new Broadcasting Act. While Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin has tried to get the bill through hearings, Tory MP Rachael Harder, dropped into a committee on which she doesn’t usually sit, has mounted a filibuster that was still continuing Friday. And out in the media, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has failed to offer a clear defence of the bill while O’Toole is busy scoring points.
Canadian creators are currently forced to compete with foreign tech giants that operate outside the regulations and taxes imposed on local cultural industries. Canadian artists, including musicians, screenwriters, actors and directors – all professions that are, by their nature, committed to freedom of expression – deserve a broadcasting law that offers basic fairness. The tragedy is that politics and disinformation is about to deny them that.
Enough of the Conservative filibustering, the alarmist Twitterstorms and the ill-informed opinion pieces. Canada needs 21st-century broadcasting legislation now.
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