September 16, 2022
Bill C-11 is back under the microscope this Fall for several days of hearings in the Senate Transportation and Communications committee, with Senators picking up where they left off in June.
Where the debate on the Bill in the Commons Heritage Committee was rife with political theatre and a Conservative filibuster of half its 20 days of hearings, the Senators are exhibiting less partisanship and more curiosity about the policy issues.
Having said that, the discussion is very much a recycling of the Commons debate with mostly the same witnesses from government, industry and advocacy groups.
Supporting the Bill, spokespersons for the large Canadian media companies just want to “get on with it” even if the Bill “isn’t perfect” or doesn’t provide a policy solution for every issue. Smaller stakeholders are asking the Senate to pass amendments the Heritage Committee overlooked, to fix the imperfections which loom large in their futures.
Opposing the Bill, critics still hotly dispute any regulation of broadcasting over the Internet.
Most of that is aimed at the Bill’s business regulation of video and audio content uploaded to YouTube.
The Internet Society’s Tim Denton characterized the Bill’s “discoverability” proposal requiring YouTube to give Canadian content a boost in its recommendation algorithm as feeding Canadians broccoli when they are looking for steak. (To the extent that the best metaphor wins the debate, I would suggest discoverability is more like adding Albertan steak to the recommendations generated by a search enquiry for “steak”).
The critics are driven by the worst-case scenario: an oppressive CRTC that dreams up perverse regulations for what posts get algorithmic priority on hosting platforms like YouTube. As Open Media’s Matt Hatfield summarized, it’s not that C-11 is a Censorship Bill but it provides future governments with censorship tools.
The proponents of the Bill are also driven by their worst fears: that unregulated Internet broadcasting dominated by foreign companies is slowly displacing the regulated legacy system that enables Canadian media companies and Canadian content to succeed. The difference is that their fears reflect ten years of cord-cutting, cord-shaving, and cord-nevering.
Daring to get in between the two sides on the thorny issue of “discoverability” is John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC).
Lawford suggested to Senators they amend the Bill to restrict regulation of YouTube recommendations to banner ads and links, “static” as opposed to “dynamic” discoverability.
That compromise may satisfy neither the critics’ principled objection to regulating the Internet nor those in the music industry, especially from Québec, who want Canadian radio airplay quotas replicated as far as possible on music streaming platforms.
The reason this is relevant to regulating user-generated uploads is that music streaming giants Spotify and Apple, and conventional radio too, will compete in the same regulatory basket against YouTube which in addition to its own streaming service offers free playlists uploaded by thousands of YouTubers.
There are all sorts of sensible regulatory outcomes that the CRTC could, and probably will, come up with once the Bill passes. But critics are not in the mood to put their trust in the Commission.
With two more days of hearings this week under its belt, the Senate Committee will continue next week on September 20-21.