By Joseph Quesnel
This legislation from Ottawa aims to bring streaming services – such as YouTube, Netflix, and TikTok – under the purview of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
The ostensible goal is to make more Canadians watch more Canadian content in their online life. This goal is caught between folly and a fool’s errand.
The proposed piece of legislation is not being demanded by Canadians, yet the government cares enough about its fate that it curbed discussion over the bill at the committee stage earlier in the summer.
This debate over legislation has huge implications for Canadians online viewing behaviour. It would essentially be a digital iron curtain, with the government determining what you can and can’t see.
The bill is currently at second reading in the Senate. For the sake of a free and open online discourse, it needs to be withdrawn.
Now, I say this as someone who deeply cares about Canadian culture. I watch Canadian shows that many do not.
I have seen Anne of Green Gables more times than I can count. But I am a realist in understanding that we must tread carefully as we live beside the cultural juggernaut that is the United States. As much as I love Canadian content, there needs to be a recognition that force feeding that content to people almost always backfires.
The legislation is designed to intrude on Canadian’s streaming pages, making it ‘easier’ to “discover” Canadian content online. Of course, the devil is in the details on what defines Canadian.
Canadian broadcasters have had to deal with arcane and pedantic definitions of Canadian content for decades. Does the director and producer have to be Canadian to qualify? Does the content have to specifically deal with Canadian matters? For many Canadian YouTube creators, they are Canadian but discuss issues of interest to more international audiences. Will the algorithm push that content down the list of recommended?
Just like with Canadian content regulations in other areas of broadcasting, there are unintended consequences to forcing content on people that they don’t want.
In a YouTube video, Todd Beaupre, director of products for YouTube stated that force feeding Canadian content through new discoverability rules could result in Canadians becoming less likely to choose Canadian content out of fatigue.
There are some Canadian YouTube creators who have legitimate fears that this level of interference with the algorithms of streaming services could seriously imperil their livelihoods. It is encouraging that at least YouTube – in its written submission to the legislative committee examining the bill – is mentioning this real threat to these content creators. They might become more difficult to find due to some esoteric definition of what is Canadian as defined by some Ottawa bureaucrats out of touch with the average Canadian.
Some streaming services – such as Netflix – already section off Canadian films and productions. Canadian content is already there to see for those seeking it. This can also be done with YouTube. So, it seems this legislation is just a boon to the Canadian cultural industry – a strong constituency of this government.
Evidence for that is seen by those who are lining up to support this bill (a bill that no one in the public has asked for).
Canadian YouTuber JJ McCullough also took note that the government’s agenda of legislative witnesses was full of connected cultural industry lobbyists. Those submitting comments on the law were a who’s who list of major telecom and streaming companies. One only needs to look at the online lobby registry to see how much companies like Telus and Rogers are meeting with government officials.
Notably absent are everyday Canadians and content creators who have built livelihoods online.
Average Canadians should be concerned that telecom and cultural industry elites are discussing a bill that impacts their life and they are not included in the conversation.
The greatest concern with this bill is that it allows the CRTC to set its hooks into the online streaming world.
The justifiable fear is that this move is just a prelude to deeper and more insidious regulation of online content down the road. Many of these online streamers are already self-regulated and are one of the last frontiers of free and open speech. As a staple of democracy, we need these platforms to remain neutral.
Canada’s political discourse has moved online, and it needs to be free from political interference, even for the sake of promoting our domestic cultural industries. There are less invasive ways to promote Canadian culture.
As Canadians, we know who we are, we want Canadians to be telling Canadian stories, but we don’t need the government intervening.
All Canadians should be demanding the government keep the internet free.
Joseph Quesnel is an independent policy commentator.