Uploads to social media could be regulated under proposed changes to Canada’s broadcasting law
|Toronto Star 26 Apr 2021 at 18:34|
Bill C-10 would amend the Broadcasting Act to allow the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to regulate streaming services such as Netflix.
Proponents of the move say it could help protect people from seeing problematic content, like child sexual abuse material or violent content, while making the playing field more fair in Canada when it comes to foreign and domestic broadcasters.
But some experts and opposition MPs are sounding the alarm after a clause that exempted user-generated content on social media from regulation was pulled from the bill during its final stages of review at the Canadian Heritage committee last week.
Critics say that while individuals themselves are protected from future regulations, the bill in its current form means that the content they upload to social media —which could be a funny cat video that someone uploads to YouTube or a TikTok created by a social media influencer — may not be. They also say that the change, carried by MPs in a 7-4 vote at a committee meeting on Friday, is an affront to freedom of expression and gives the government too broad a scope in regulating the internet.
Tamir Israel, a technology lawyer at the University of Ottawa, said losing the protection could mean podcasts uploaded to iTunes or videos uploaded to YouTube could become subject to regulation by the federal government.
That could come in the form of content moderation or through rules around Canadian content being promoted on platforms more often, he said, but the scope is broad and it’s hard to say how it would materialize.
Having a law on the books like Bill C-10 in its current state could pave the way for future governments to make regulations around user generated content on the internet, even if the current Liberal government has no intention of doing so, said Israel.
“This is a poorly designed and not very carefully thought out attempt to pass a law that was initially focused on protecting Canadian content and is now potentially going to be an open-ended censorship regime for the internet,” Israel said.
“It’s now much broader in scope than it needs to be to achieve its intended objectives and has wide potential for misuse in the future because of that.”
Bill C-10 was introduced by the Liberal government to ensure that online streaming services that operate in Canada, like Netflix and Amazon, are subject to the same regulations and requirements to invest in Canadian content creation as broadcasters like Bell or Rogers.
Daniel Bernhard, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said he supported the move because it means more regulation for massive digital platforms that will bring them down to a level playing field with companies in Canada.
He also said that some user-generated content should be regulated, such as videos being uploaded to pornography websites that include child sexual abuse material.
Bernhard said he didn’t support the argument that the government could potentially wield its power in ways which could impact individuals’ social media use.
“These guys are worried about a slippery slope in the direction of censorship,” he said.
“We’re already at the bottom of the mountain, on the other side of the slope, when it comes to the harmful implications of these companies pursuing their profit at the expense of our society.
“All this does is leave options on the table.”
Camille Gagné-Raynauld, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, said in an emailed statement to the Star that the removal of the clause “concerns notably the music streaming that is rendered possible by social media platforms,” like those that create playlists.
“Where content uploaded by individual users is curated by a platform, and is deemed of significant impact, that platform, not the users, could be subject to the Broadcasting Act,” she said.
“The bill as it has been amended would continue to exempt individual users from being considered broadcasters.”
But Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the bill is “very vulnerable” to a Charter of Rights challenge now.
“The notion that millions of TikTok users are going to be called into Gatineau to appear before the CRTC isn’t going to happen,” he said. “But all of their TikTok videos will be subject to potential CRTC regulation.”
Geist said the individual platforms could have to answer for user-generated content, but ultimately it’s the “individual speech that will be regulated” and that could infringe on freedom of expression rights.
“A prior generation would express themselves by writing letters,” he said. “My children’s generation posts videos to TikTok and Instagram. It’s all speech.”
Conservative Party MPs at the committee meeting voted against the move on Friday. Kevin Waugh (Saskatoon-Grasswood) said his party has voted against all the main clauses of the act, and objects to the government “trying to control the internet.”