Bill C-10: Come for the censorship, stay for the corporate welfare
One of the iron truths of the current political moment is that everyone loathes the collection of internet and social media companies that can collectively be described as the ‘web giants’ and we all enjoy thinking of ways to take money off them. That fact is clearly informing how the Liberals are deciding to brand their current controversial efforts to amend the broadcasting act. Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has been given the job of shepherding Bill C-10 through parliament and has portrayed the bill as an effort to regularize the treatment of companies like Netflix and Amazon by getting them to do the same things Canadian broadcasters are already required to do by law.
If that was the full extent of the legislation it would likely be a good idea. However, as the bill has wound its way through committee it has become clear that Bill C-10 will have wide ranging effects on what content Canadians will see while online. A major flashpoint has been over how the bill will treat user-generated content (i.e. audio and video posted by individuals to third-party sites like YouTube or TikTok). In the original version of the bill there was a broad carve-out that explicitly exempted social media sites from the scope of the new legislation. This would have meant that while sites like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video may have faced requirements to produce or showcase a certain amount of Canadian content, social media sites would largely be exempt from the law. This carve-out was removed via amendment, and replaced with a much narrower exemption that merely protects the rights of people to post user-generated content. The clear implication is that the government envisages bringing at least some of the activity of social media sites under the regulation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). A leaked Canadian Heritage memo has essentially confirmed this fact, and shows that Bill C-10 would bring a huge range of internet content under CRTC regulation, including explicitly foreign content such as BritBox (a subscription site which offers access to streaming British TV shows) which consumers presumably seek out because it is non-Canadian.
A lot of media attention has been paid to how Bill C-10 would influence the content Canadians see online. The government has spoke about boosting the ‘discoverability’ of Canadian content, so it definitely seems as though they intend to make companies adjust their algorithms to push Canadian content to the top of people’s feeds. This is a pretty silly thing to try and do, but if it is attempted it will be so easily circumvented that its hard to get too worried about.
The more pernicious effect of Bill C-10 is that it will likely result in a wealth transfer from online content producers to legacy broadcasters. Under Canada’s current laws, Canadian broadcasters are required to pay into the Canada Media Fund (CMF). The CMF supports the creation of Canadian content. In fact, sometimes the exact same broadcasters who pay into the fund will receive grants from the CMF to produce this content. Bill C-10 seems to be an attempt to massively expand the number of entities that will have to pay into the CMF. This will benefit companies currently making content that qualifies for CMF money at the expense of all other content creators. It is perhaps defensible to make truly huge internet content providers like Netflix* pay for their ‘fair share’ of Canadian content production, but it hardly seems appropriate to make online services like podcast networks pay money that will ultimately end up in Bell and Roger’s TV production budgets.
If the Liberals had been clear about their intentions for Bill C-10, Canada might have been able to have an adult discussion about what regulation (if any) should exist to control social media recommendation algorithms. It might also have been possible to discuss the outdated mechanism of funding Canadian content production and update the system for an online era. Instead, the Liberals have chosen to obfuscate key issues about how the bill will function. What’s worse is that they’re likely to get away with it. The NDP, Greens and Bloc Quebecois all appear to have accepted the ‘making web giants pay their fair share’ argument, meaning Conservative opposition to the bill can be painted as mindless contrarianism on the part of Erin O’Toole. Hopefully its not too late for these parties to wake up to the con and work to stop Bill C-10 becoming law.
* Although, it should be noted that Canadian broadcasters benefit from a variety of regulations that make broadcasting in Canada more profitable than it otherwise would be. This is essentially a regulatory subsidy that makes up for the contributions Canadian broadcasters are required to make to the CMF. Non-Canadian companies like Netflix do not benefit from this regulatory subsidy so if they contributed to the CMF the would be paying the quid but not getting the quo that Canadian broadcasters do.
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