The federal broadcasting regulator must minimize the need for platforms such as Netflix and YouTube to manipulate their algorithms to promote Canadian films, TV programs and music, says Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.
A draft direction to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission published Thursday by the minister indicates how he would like the CRTC to interpret and regulate the Online Streaming Act, which received royal assent in April.
The document asks the CRTC to modernize the definition of what counts as a Canadian film or TV program under the act. It says Canadian ownership of intellectual-property rights is an important consideration but may no longer be required for content to qualify as officially Canadian.
The draft direction, which will be followed by the CRTC but is not legally binding, reiterates Mr. Rodriguez’s repeated assertion that Bill C-11 does not cover videos posted on YouTube by social-media creators, or podcasts or video games.
Tory MPs, including Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, have raised concerns that the act could allow the regulator to meddle in what Canadians watch by interfering with platforms’ algorithms determining how content is displayed.
Such algorithms tend to promote content based on people’s previous choices of movies, songs and programs, how long they watch them, and their “likes” and “dislikes.”
The act does not give the CRTC the power to change streaming platforms’ algorithms. But last year, the former chairman of the CRTC told a Senate committee that it could ask platforms such as YouTube to “manipulate” their algorithms to make Canadian content more visible.
Ian Scott told senators that, although the broadcast regulator would not itself want to manipulate algorithms, it could tell platforms, “I want you to manipulate it [the algorithm] to produce particular outcomes.”
The draft ministerial direction says the CRTC should minimize this happening. Promotion of Canadian content could be done in a variety of ways, both traditional – such as marketing and billboards – and “emerging” methods, Heritage officials told journalists in a briefing about the draft direction on Thursday.
“In making regulations or imposing conditions in respect of discoverability and showcasing requirements, the commission is directed to prioritize outcome-based regulations and conditions that minimize the need for broadcasting undertakings to make changes to their computer algorithms that impact the presentation of programs,” the direction says.
At the technical briefing, Heritage officials confirmed that the manipulation of algorithms may sometimes be used to showcase Canadian content.
YouTube, which has expressed fears that the act could lead to the manipulation of its algorithms, said Thursday that it is reviewing the policy direction and will continue to advocate for the interests of Canada’s digital creators and audiences during the consultation process.
Mr. Rodriguez’s ministerial direction instructs the CRTC to update what counts as a Canadian film or TV program. His instruction follows criticism from Hollywood movie studios, and the union representing crew, that Canada is out of step with other countries when it comes to what counts as a Canadian film.
Award-winning productions, such as The Umbrella Academy and The Shape of Water, made here and featuring a plethora of Canadian talent, don’t count as officially Canadian because they were made by foreign studios.
Jusqu’au déclin, Netflix’s first original feature made in Quebec about a Montreal man who joins a survivalist training camp in rural Quebec, also fails to qualify as Canadian. It was written, directed and acted by Quebeckers and shot in Quebec in French. The movie was dubbed and subtitled into 31 languages and watched by 21 million people worldwide.
The Canadian film industry has insisted that Canadians retain the intellectual-property rights for a work to qualify, including Jack Blum executive director of REEL Canada, a non-profit organization that represents Canadian films in schools.
“The devil is always in the details, but to the extent that the minister is directing the CRTC to support Canadian key creatives, Canadian producers and Canadian ownership, it’s going in the right direction,” he said.
Mr. Rodriguez’s direction suggests expanding the points system, which determines what can count as a Canadian film. Now points are given if key creative positions such as the director and lead actors are Canadian but not roles such as hair and makeup designers or the Canadian crew.
“In its determination of what constitutes Canadian programming, the commission is directed to: support Canadians holding a broad range of key creative positions, in particular those with a high degree of creative control or visibility; support Canadian ownership of intellectual property,” the direction says.