Canadian Digital Protectionism Gravely Threatens Free Speech

  • October 30, 2023
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In 2023, Canada’s parliament passed two significant pieces of legislation, Bills C-11 and C-18, both of which have stirred debates and concerns regarding their potential impact on online freedom and political censorship. Bill C-18, commonly known as the Online News Act, was introduced in the forty-fourth Canadian Parliament and received royal assent on June 22, 2023. This legislation introduces a framework mandating digital news intermediaries, including search engines and social-networking services, to negotiate compensation for online publishers for reproducing or facilitating access to their content. These negotiations would aim to make social-media companies pay Canadian publishers for links to their content, even though these links are free advertising that already help the publishers make money.

The Online Streaming Act, or Bill C-11, received royal assent in April 2023. This legislation extends the regulatory reach of Canada’s Broadcasting Act to encompass internet video and digital media. While it seeks to create a competitive environment for streaming platforms, emphasizes accessibility, and promotes Canadian content, it raises red flags for internet censorship by expanding the authority of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

These bills—voted for by members of Parliament from the Liberal Party and the allied New Democrat Party but unanimously rejected by members of the Conservative Party—will force platforms like YouTube to surrender some control over their algorithms to the CRTC by promoting “Canadian” content recommended by the government, whether or not it relates to the user’s watch history.

Canadian YouTuber J.J. McCullough opposes this government overreach and has testified at a parliamentary committee, where he argued that “the CRTC will have to come up with a criterion for what is good Canadian content, and then YouTube is going to have to fulfill legal obligations to promote that kind of content.” He also discusses his concern for the financial well-being of full-time Canadian YouTubers, who he argues may be at a disadvantage if their content doesn’t serve the state’s agenda.

The Canadian government followed up with a second sucker punch known as Bill C-18, or the Online News Act, which requires social-media companies like Google and Meta to pay publishers for news links that appear on the platforms, something that has always been free for both the social-media platforms and the publishers. A “link tax” would be an unprecedented government overreach and a financial liability for the Canadian social-media scene.

Google’s President of Global Affairs, Kent Walker, expressed the company’s strong stance against this bill on a Canadian public-policy forum, arguing that Google supports and compensates local media on a free-market basis, without draconian regulation. The Canadian government may have had a mixed agenda in passing this legislation.

With regard to online freedom, Bills C-11 and C-18 are a cause for alarm. Government-imposed bargaining mandates can distort market dynamics and compromise the organic emergence of free-market agreements between content creators, news media, and digital platforms. Critics argue that these bills will have a chilling effect on online free expression if digital-market intermediaries become cautious about the content they host for fear of legal repercussions. These bills infringe on voluntary choices and contractual agreements that should be made in a free and open marketplace, but the Liberal government has pushed for them with arguments about supporting Canadian news. Even with this narrative, 63 percent of Canadians surveyed were concerned that Bill C-18 could restrict news on social media.

Even after the political turmoil surrounding these bills, the CRTC released a press statement on September 29 embracing their new authority. “Today, the CRTC is advancing its regulatory plan to modernize Canada’s broadcasting framework and ensure online streaming services make meaningful contributions to Canadian and Indigenous content.” The invocation of the term indigenous the day before Canada’s newest federal holiday, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, seems contrived, especially given the government’s despicable track record on indigenous issues. In the same press release, the CRTC announced that all “online streaming services that offer podcasts” must register with the government to submit to further regulatory controls.

The concerns raised by these bills have a particular urgency for Canadian members of global diasporas, like my family members who came to Canada from Morocco, where a 6.8-magnitude earthquake recently hit. News companies rely on social media for delivering up-to-the-minute information on such natural disasters. If social-media companies are reluctant to pay for content to appear in Canadian feeds, then Canadians with ties to the sites of these disasters may no longer be able to receive the news they need from platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

Perhaps these Canadians will make their voices heard, but even those without personal ties beyond the country’s borders are now seeing wildfires and other weather events that are met more easily when social-media platforms provide an efficient way to communicate things like traffic information and public alerts. Big government impedes the free market of solutions more at the expense of social media’s everyday users than the companies themselves.

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