The federal government’s broad push to regulate the internet has the support of a majority of Canadians, according to a new survey, even though the details of Ottawa’s plans are generating strong pushback from policy experts.
The House of Commons is currently studying two separate pieces of legislation proposing the regulation of online news remuneration and streaming services. It is also in the process of drafting a third bill that will aim to combat various online abuses, including hate speech, terrorist content and child pornography.
A Nanos Research poll commissioned by The Globe and Mail found that 55 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support greater government regulation of the internet, while 37 per cent oppose or somewhat oppose such regulation and 8 per cent said they are unsure.
“What it suggests is that there is room for the government to move forward on this, but I still think that the government has to be careful because there still remains a significant proportion of Canadians, and although it’s not a majority, that would not want to see greater internet regulation,” said chief data scientist Nik Nanos.
“I would say it is a cautious green light.”
Opposition to greater government regulation of the internet was strongest in the Prairies, where 50 per cent of respondents said they oppose or somewhat oppose the idea, compared with 19 per cent in Quebec. Mr. Nanos said these geographical differences are not surprising, as people in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta tend to prefer free-market systems and less government regulation, while Quebeckers expect the government to play a role in protecting culture.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez tabled the Online Streaming Act in February. The legislation, known as Bill C-11, aims to level the playing field so streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime would fall under some of the rules that apply to traditional broadcasters.
It includes a proposal that would require streaming services to contribute to the creation of Canadian content. The poll found that 67 per cent of Canadians support or somewhat support this proposal, 22 per cent oppose or somewhat oppose it, and 11 per cent are unsure. Quebec residents were most likely to support or somewhat support it, at 80 per cent, compared with 55 per cent in the Prairies.
The Nanos Research random survey, conducted between April 29 and May 2, polled 1,005 Canadians by phone and online. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The arts sector welcomed the Online Streaming Act, but critics have warned the proposals could impose excessive government interference online. Michael Geist, a law professor and the Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, has said the bill gives the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) enormous power to regulate everything from podcasts to TikTok videos.
The government tabled its second piece of internet regulation legislation last month. The Online News Act, known as Bill C-18, would require major tech firms such as Google and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, to compensate Canadian media outlets for the news content that appears on their platforms. It would create a framework for news outlets to collectively negotiate deals with tech giants to share online advertising revenues when the parties cannot reach a private agreement.
News outlets argue that the dominance of tech companies has left few advertising dollars for everyone else. Online advertising revenues reached $9.7-billion in 2020, with Google and Meta earning more than 80 per cent of that.
However, former CRTC leaders have said the regulator is not equipped to oversee the implementation of the Online News Act. The CRTC regulates and supervises broadcasting and telecommunications, and its mandate clearly stipulates that it does not intervene in newspapers or magazines.
Ottawa is also in the process of developing a third bill that would address harmful online material, but documents obtained by Mr. Geist through an access to information request show wide-ranging blowback to the government’s plan.
The documents include a letter from Twitter Canada in which the social-media giant warns that the government’s plan to create a new internet regulator with the power to block specific websites is comparable to the draconian practices of authoritarian countries such as China, North Korea and Iran. The letter, marked confidential, was submitted to an online consultation the government launched last July in order to gather opinions on its draft plan for curbing hate speech and other online harms.
In March, Mr. Rodriguez announced the creation of an advisory group of Canadian experts who will provide advice on a legislative and regulatory framework for a prospective online harms bill. The group’s work is continuing.
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