Members of Parliament on the Canadian heritage committee are wrapping up hearings this week on the government’s online streaming legislation, a bill that is generating a deeply polarized reaction from policy experts.
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez tabled the Online Streaming Act in February. The legislation, known as Bill C-11, aims to level the playing field so streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Spotify would fall under some of the rules that apply to traditional broadcasters, including a requirement to contribute to the creation of Canadian content. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) would oversee the implementation of the new regulations under the legislation.
Advocates of the bill say it is urgently needed to support Canadian artists and media producers, while critics call it a dramatic overreach that will empower the CRTC to infringe on freedom of speech.
The committee is in the midst of a flurry of hearings that appear to be aimed at getting the bill through the House of Commons before the summer recess. It had agreed to hold 20 hours of hearings, and that target will be reached later this week. MPs have until 4 p.m. on Friday to submit amendments to the bill.
On Wednesday evening, the committee heard from Marla Boltman, executive director of FRIENDS, a non-profit organization that advocates for Canadian voices to have a place in public broadcasting, news and media. She said C-11 is long overdue and urgently needed to protect Canadian content.
“If we do nothing, how our stories are told, who gets to tell them and how Canadian audiences access these stories will all be decisions made by foreign tech giants, million-dollar companies who have effectively been crashing on our cultural couch for almost a decade, paying nothing towards the structures and systems that will allow Canadians to tell their own stories,” Ms. Boltman said.
Wednesday’s hearings included speakers who were generally in favour of the bill, and J.J. McCullough, who described himself as the 414th most popular Canadian YouTuber, and is opposed.
“It is frankly terrifying to imagine that government may soon have a hand in determining which genres of video are more worthy of promotion than others,” he said.
In addition to hearing from witnesses on Wednesday, the committee met twice on Monday, three times on Tuesday and is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, when it will hear from Mr. Rodriguez.
Speaking to the committee on Tuesday, Netflix’s public policy director, Stéphane Cardin, said Canada is one of the company’s top production countries and that Netflix has invested more than $3.5-billion in Canadian films and series since 2017. He said C-11′s “rigid approach” would simply transpose the current regulatory requirements of traditional broadcasters onto online streaming services and, in Netflix’s view, not create a level playing field, as the government claims.
“Unlike Canada’s large private-sector broadcasters, Netflix would not have the ability to meet its obligations through categories such as news or sports programming, which represent the majority of their Canadian content spending. And titles that are produced or solely financed by Netflix still would not qualify, even when the majority or totality of creative roles are held by Canadians,” Mr. Cardin said.
Philip Palmer, a former Justice Department lawyer who worked on drafting the original 1991 Broadcasting Act, told MPs on Tuesday that the amount of choice online should mean less government regulation of content, not more.
“Given the bounty of content on the internet, it is both counterintuitive and, frankly, shocking, to witness not the dismemberment of the broadcasting regulation, but its extension to the whole of the internet,” he said.
Mr. Palmer is retired and is a board member of the Internet Society Canada Chapter, a not-for-profit organization led primarily by academics, former regulators and former senior public servants who advocate for an open and accessible internet. In a written submission, the society described C-11 as a “radical change” and said requirements that streaming services recommend Canadian content are contrary to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Make no mistake, this bill as written is about speech controls when talking by audio or audio-visual means across the internet,” the society’s chair, Timothy Denton, told the committee on Tuesday.
Université de Montréal law professor Pierre Trudel told MPs that such warnings about freedom of speech should be dismissed. He pointed to language in the Broadcasting Act that specifically states the law shall be applied in a way that protects and enhances freedom of expression.
“I don’t understand why we can keep pretending there’s a risk that the CRTC will start censoring content,” he said.
Jeanette Patell, YouTube’s head of Canada government affairs and public policy, warned the bill could hurt Canadian content creators. She said that if the government mandates a YouTube viewer to watch a video that isn’t personally relevant, the viewer won’t watch it or may give it a thumbs down. These behaviours tell YouTube’s system that the video isn’t relevant to viewers and applies those lessons on a global scale, she said, meaning Canadian creators could be demoted in search results around the world.
“That is a terrible prospect for Canadian creators, who depend on international audiences for over 90 per cent of their watch times and it would directly hurt their revenue,” Ms. Patell told the committee on Tuesday.
YouTube suggested some amendments for the bill, such as strengthening language to prevent regulatory impacts on recommendation algorithms.
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