Will Bill C-10 end online freedoms of expression?

After considerable backlash for potentially infringing on the freedom of expression, the Liberal government says it won’t regulate user-generated content on social media platforms, but experts warn this overextension of power to regulate the internet is not as innocuous as it seems.
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Over the past two weeks, a storm of criticism has followed the Liberal government’s amendment to Bill C-10, the Broadcasting Act, which would extend the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) power to control all audio and audio-visual content on the internet, including those posted by regular users.

What is Bill C-10?

Bill C-10 was first introduced in November 2020 by Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. who claims that the main intent of the amendment is to “modernize” the Broadcasting Act so that online platforms are liable to promote and serve Canadian creators, as traditional media sources do.

Under the act, Canadian distributors of broadcast content, such as Bell, are required to pay a share of their profits to the Canada Media Fund, which funds the creation and production of Canadian programming.

What is the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)?

The CRTC is a federal broadcast and telecommunications regulator that was created to ensure that “Canadians have access to a world-class communication system” and that they can “connect to quality and innovative communication services at affordable prices.”

Its focus is on carrying out the objectives of the Broadcasting Act, Telecommunications Act and Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation. They currently regulate over 2,000 broadcasters in television, radio, and telecommunication companies.

What’s the Problem with Bill C-10?

The cause of widespread backlash is the removal of section 4.1 of the Broadcasting Act at the behest of Liberal MPs on the Heritage Committee. On April 23rd, 2021, Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin confirmed that section 4.1, that previously excluded user-generated content on social media platforms from the scope of broadcast regulation, will be removed.

The Liberals on the committee, supported by the NDP, voted that same Friday to shut down debate on Bill C-10, which raised red flags for the opposition party.

You can read the summary about Bill C-10 and Section 4.1 here.

CTV News reported that “[Liberals] removed section 4.1 because they had heard during the committee testimony from witnesses who flagged that as it was worded, platforms such as YouTube could find a loophole to not be considered music streamers even though they are one of the main places Canadians listen to music.”

University of Ottawa law professor and the Canada Research Chair in internet law, Michael Geist,  warns that, “Without this provision, anything uploaded by users – whether cat videos or kids dancing in the kitchen – would be treated by Canadian law as a ‘program’ and subject to CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) regulation.”

Immense backlash from free speech experts, some members of Parliament and the Conservatives ensued, particularly in the case that it infringed the freedom of expression.

“The kind of speech that many Canadians engage in on these platforms is just basic, fundamental freedom of expression that does not require, and should not be subject to, any sort of regulation or regulatory oversight by a broadcast regulator,” said Geist.

In an interview with Postmedia, former CRTC commissioner Peter Menzies said that, “Granting a government agency authority over legal user generated content – particularly when backed up by the government’s musings about taking down websites – doesn’t just infringe on free expression, it constitutes a full-blown assault upon it and, through it, the foundations of democracy.”

Conservative heritage critic Alain Rayes issued the following statement: “Conservatives support creating a level playing field between large foreign streaming services and Canadian broadcasters, but not at the cost of Canadians’ fundamental rights and freedoms.”

PC MP Pierre Poilievre said that “…the bill’s true powers would be to censor and control what Canadians see, read, watch, and post online.” Poilievre calls this a “mass extension of governmental power that Justin Trudeau is trying to slip in throughout the panic of a pandemic when he thinks nobody is watching.”

Despite this backlash, the Heritage Committee declared they won’t reverse changes to Bill C-10. But as the backlash grew in regards to section 4.1, Guilbeault promised on Monday to make it “crystal clear” that the CRTC  is only regulating  tech giants and “professional” content rather than user-generated content.

However, experts warn that although users will not be considered as broadcasters per se, social media platforms will be legally required by the CRTC to ensure that their users are meeting Canadian content standards.

“Social media companies (would be) legally responsible for all these videos that users post as though they’re somehow broadcasting programs,” explained Emily Laidlaw, Canada research chair in cybersecurity law at the University of Calgary.

The NDP, who previously supported the bill, joined the Conservatives on Monday to call on the Liberal government to pause the legislation until the charter statement is amended for the second time. Charter statements are issued by the justice minister to review if government legislation would go against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The vote for this proposal of Bill C-10 has been pushed to Friday but critics were not convinced that Monday’s events would address their concerns.

In an email, Geist wrote that, “The solution lies in stopping [clause-by-clause] review until an updated assessment can be conducted and the responsible ministers can respond to questions about the changes…it’s hard to understand why the Liberals instead chose to delay moving rapidly to a charter review.”

“When we are in a place in Canadian history where we are using social media platforms as the public square, it is important to protect the voices of Canadians and how they express those voices in those spaces… When the government goes so far as to regulate what people are saying or posting, it has gone too far,” said  Rachael Harder, Conservative MP on Monday.

Despite Guilbeault and the Liberal government’s attempt to reassure Canadians that their content will not be subject to CRTC control, the removal of section 4.1 will no doubt give the CRTC immense authority to regulate the internet for the first time in history.

Don’t let the excessive use of cat videos as an example of censorship fool you into thinking this  premise will not threaten fundamental rights of expression. The CRTC is yet to establish specific regulations, and they have a lot of freedom to decide how they’re going to adopt these powers, at a later date. As harmless as it is currently portrayed to us, there is a possibility that this new regulatory system can extend to political speech, similar to how our current broadcasting regulations partake in partisan interests. There is no way to prevent this government, or any future government, from modifying this bill as they please.

If left unchecked and unaccountable, this bill can have unforeseen consequences, particularly in regards to freedom of expression.

Perhaps OpenMedia’s Executive Director Laura Tribe is right in saying that, “… no matter what their best intentions might be, you never know what’s going to happen in any future government and how they might use those powers as well.”

 

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Many groups have set up petitions to fight Bill C-10:

“Online freedom is at risk with Bill C-10. Government should not control your content” by change.org. You can sign it here.

Pierre Poilievre’s petition to “Stop the Censorship Bill & Protect Free Speech“ 

The Conservatives petition to say no to the Liberals Bill C-10, a legislation that would censor the internet and ‘regulate’ free speech. 

OpenMedia has created a template for Canadians to fill out to send a letter to their MPs.

You can also write your MP and the federal cabinet, or call them personally to have more effect. 

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