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Liberals' online streaming Bill C-11 passes Parliament

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After years of political pushback and considerable parliamentary scrutiny, the federal Liberal government's Online Streaming Act known as Bill C-11 passed the Senate and has become law.

Thursday evening, Bill C-11 cleared its final legislative hurdle in the Senate, seeing senators agree to bill sponsor Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez's take-some-and-leave-some approach to amendments made by the upper chamber.

This clears the path for the contentious bill, focused on substantively reforming the Broadcasting Act for the first time since 1991 to take into consideration online content, to come into effect.

Senators voting 52 to 16 on a motion informing the House of Commons that the Senate agreed with the version of Bill C-11 the majority of MPs passed last month, made passing the bill possible. The House was then informed of the Senate's decision, and royal assent was granted by 6:55 p.m. ET.

Bill C-11 is aimed at ensuring increasingly popular and profitable social media platforms and streaming services such as Netflix, Crave, Spotify, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and YouTube are subjected to Canadian content requirements and regulations comparable to traditional broadcasters. The policy change comes with a requirement for these platforms to spend millions investing in Canadian content and creators.

While the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, as well as many in the "CanCon" music, film, and television industries, have backed Bill C-11, alarms have been sounded by critics that the Liberal proposal could have knock-on effects for content creators and what everyday users see online, due to provisions that would require platforms to promote Canadian content.

In their efforts to lobby against this bill, some of the tech companies have gone to great lengths, such as YouTube, which ran an online campaign warning users who earn money from making videos about how the legislation could impact their livelihoods. The Conservatives, arguing that the legislation will have the impact of censoring what Canadians see online, led the charge against Bill C-11 inside Parliament.

As a result of this divide, this piece of legislation has been under the parliamentary microscope in both the House and Senate for more than a year, following a failed attempt prior to the last election.

Between the more than 100 amendments contemplated by the House of Commons, and the longest study ever conducted by a Senate committee, the minister responsible for Bill C-11 has repeatedly emphasized the important contributions of parliamentarians to the final wording of the legislation, while asserting that the time had come to "move on."

"Today, we are standing up for our stories, our artists, our producers and our creators. We're standing up so that Canadians have even more opportunities to see themselves in what they watch and listen to," said Rodriguez, reacting to the bill's passage in a statement.

"With this legislation, we are ensuring that Canada's incredible talent has a bigger and brighter stage online. They tell our stories, they make our voices heard, they contribute to our economy, and they make our culture what it is: strong, diverse and unique," the minister said. 

Over the last two weeks, the Senate has been mired in a largely procedural battle over whether to assert itself and insist on the substantive amendments made by the upper chamber that were rejected by the majority of MPs.

Attempts to have the Senate stand its ground on certain amendments were unsuccessful, seeing the majority of senators vote against related motions on Wednesday evening. Though, the passed motion was amended to note the Liberals gave a "public assurance" that Bill C-11 "will not apply to user-generated digital content."

A key sticking point raised in the numerous hours of debate recently held was the Senate's attempt to instill further protections for individual content creators in Bill C-11.

The government asserted that the existing safeguards in the bill were sufficient and rejected this amendment on the basis that it would impact the government's ability to "publicly consult on, and issue, a policy direction to the CRTC to appropriately scope the regulation of social media services."

While the Conservatives have pledged to repeal Bill C-11 should they form government, for now, seeing the Online Streaming Act become law is a long-awaited political victory for the Liberals.

Complicating the back and forth between those who think Bill C-11's critics were doing the bidding of big tech, and those who fear the legislation's free speech implications, is that a lot is being left to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) as the regulatory body to determine how the new rules will be enforced.

Now that Bill C-11 has passed, that regulatory work can begin.

The next step will be for the CRTC to get to work on drafting the policy framework for how the broadcasting and communications regulator will implement the new powers Bill C-11 grants, informed by a federal policy directive as well as public consultations.

The draft federal policy direction will be published in the Canada Gazette, for the public, artists, digital creators, and businesses to read and provide feedback on. The draft will then be updated and re-published, taking into consideration what the government hears. The CRTC will also give notice about its consultation plans, regarding how it intends to enforce Bill C-11. This will include multiple public proceedings.

It is expected that the consultations will be where stakeholders with outstanding concerns about the bill turn next. Marking Bill C-11's passage, internet advocacy organization OpenMedia accused the Senate of backing down and letting a version of the bill become law that is "largely unchanged" from the initial version tabled in Parliament in February 2022.

"Make no mistake: the fight isn’t over yet. While legal protection of our content was the best option, Heritage Minister Rodriguez can still issue a clear policy direction to the CRTC that tells them our user content should not be regulated in practice, and our choices must be respected. That's where the fight will go next," said OpenMedia campaigns director Matt Hatfield.

In an email to CTV News, TikTok spokesperson Danielle Morgan said that they plan to keep fighting for the interests of Canadian digital-first creators to be able to "create content for global audiences without being subject to gatekeepers or encumbered by regulatory red tape."

Remarking on the passage of Bill C-11, pro-Canadian broadcasting organization FRIENDS called it "one of the most epic Canadian stories ever told."

"While we wholeheartedly applaud the House and the Senate for the leading roles they have played in this suspense-filled drama, there is still work to be done before the credits roll on Bill C-11," said FRIENDS executive director Marla Boltman in a statement, indicating plans to push the CRTC to make sure the standards are equal for Canadian broadcasters and streaming giants' Canadian content requirements, or decades of "carefully crafted cultural policy" meant to protect Canadian talent could be undermined.

Also flagging concerns about the legislation as drafted leading to a two-tier system, the Canadian Media Producers Association said that it still welcomes the bill and expressed gratitude for Rodriguez' "heroic efforts" in securing its passage.

"We are on the precipice of a pivotal moment in Canadian broadcasting history. It took 30 years before the Broadcasting Act was updated. Since we don’t know when this opportunity will present itself again, it’s important that we get it right,” said the CMPA’s president and CEO Reynolds Mastin in a statement.

It remains to be seen what the timeline will be for Bill C-11's policy changes to come into effect. 

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