House committee hears clashing expert opinions on Bill C-10
OTTAWA -- Taking a pause from their clause-by-clause review of Bill C-10, the House of Commons’ heritage committee heard from experts on Monday who both strongly oppose and defend the contents of the legislation.
Janet Yale, the chair of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel and a former telecommunications executive, told members that the proposed changes to the Broadcasting Act would appropriately regulate an untamed online sector, while also protecting users who engage with it.
“Individuals who create content, amateur or professional audiences, large or small, are not affected by Bill C-10…. No one is going to police that content, tell them what they can say or compel them to pay dues,” she said.
“What Bill C-10 does require … [is that] the YouTube, the Disney+, the Netflixes of the world – who share that content and make money from distributing that content – must operate by a set of rules and contribute some amount of the revenues they’re harvesting from Canadians.”
On the other side of the argument was Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-Commerce law at the University of Ottawa. He has long been critical of the bill, arguing that it would encroach on personal rights and freedoms.
“No one, literally no other country, uses broadcast regulation to regulate user-generated content in this way. There are good reasons that all other countries reject this approach, it’s not that they don’t love their creators or that they want to avoid regulating internet companies. It’s that regulating user-generated content in this manger is entirely unworkable, a risk to net neutrality and a threat to freedom of expression,” he said.
Through Bill C-10, the government is seeking to make changes that they say are aimed at ensuring major social media platforms and streaming services promote and pay their fair share toward Canadian artists and are held to similar standards as regular broadcasters.
The bill has been embroiled in controversy after the Liberals removed and refused to reinstate an exemption from the bill that protected individuals’ online content from its proposed Broadcasting Act, prompting the free speech concerns.
The government continues to point to a separate regulation exemption for individual users that remains intact, and subsequent amendments have sought to specify scope of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) new powers under Bill C-10.
Though, the discoverability aspect of those regulatory powers means that the CRTC could play a role in putting guidelines in place around what platforms’ algorithms could suggest users watch or listen to next on social media or streaming platforms, which free speech advocates continue to say will have implications for the content Canadians are seeing.
On this point, Geist said “what you are saying, is the government, through its regulator, gets to determine what gets prioritized, not on a specific piece of content per se but it’s going to make choices elevating some and prioritizing others. That clearly has an impact on individual Canadians’ expressive rights.”
Yale disputed his argument, suggesting that it assumes algorithms as they function today are “pure” and “uncontaminated by commercial considerations.”
The committee heard from Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault on Friday as part of their efforts to get clarity on the bill as amended. There, he urged members to swiftly pass the legislation. It came a day after the Department of Justice produced an analysis on the constitutionally of the legislation, stating, in its view, it did not infringe on the freedom of expression of social media users.
They will also hear from Justice Minister David Lametti on Tuesday before they resume clause-by-clause.
The president and CEO of the Canadian Independent Music Association Andrew Cash also offered his perspective during the meeting on Monday, painting a picture of where some artists stand on the issue.
“Digital giants doing business in Canada make lots of money off Canadians but pay fractions of a cent to content creators and they operate here without any accountability or regulatory obligations including to fairly contribute to the arts and culture ecosystem,” he said, adding that while the bill is flawed, he’s encouraged it would direct people to Canadian content through the discoverability component.
He said the organization is assured by the review by the Justice Department that the legislation won’t infringe on the ability of its members to be able to post freely and monetize their outputs.
Geist agreed that there must be more support for Canadian artists but that it shouldn’t be through tinkering with discoverability algorithms.
“The starting point is tax dollars. The government has already announced that it wants to increase the taxes on tech companies, it should take some of that tax money, allocate it directly to the various creator programs and in doing so there could be money this year, at the time when there really is a need for money, as opposed to the way this will play out with this bill, which is undoubtedly going to take years,” he said.
Asked whether the bill can be salvaged, Geist said for one, it will require re-adding the section that specifically protects user-generated content.
“We need to put back in section 4.1 or exclude all scope of regulation of this kind of content, that would include discoverability which does go without question to … choices and then ultimately to net neutrality,” he said.