Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault says he wants to table a bill by June that will implement changes recommended in a major report into Canadian broadcasting on Wednesday, even as questions continue about whether those changes will hurt consumers.
That comes after the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and others have called on him to ignore the report.
Guilbeault was the keynote speaker Thursday morning in Ottawa at the annual conference of the Canadian Media Producers Association, which is the advocacy group representing Canadian producers of English-language television programs and films.
He was asked about the report by the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, which issued nearly 100 recommendations urging the government to implement sweeping new changes for the streaming era, including making companies like Netflix, Spotify and others pay sales tax.
That report also wants those foreign companies to pay into a fund supporting the creation of Canadian content.
“It’s going to be a tremendous help for the proposals that we want to put forward to change the ecosystem in Canada,” Guilbeault said about the report.
The current parliamentary session will not end in June when the House of Commons rises for summer break as Guilbeault suggested. Instead, it will actually continue until such time as Parliament is dissolved and a new speech from the throne is read.
The recommendations made in the report have raised the ire of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which on Thursday afternoon issued a statement warning the panel went too far and urging the government not to be guided by their work.
“Today’s Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel contained ill-conceived, if not significantly over-reaching, recommendations that are out of step with G7 approaches to broadcasting and streaming issues, not to mention deeply concerning infringements against the Canadian ideal of freedom of speech,” said Scott Smith, the Chamber’s senior director of innovation and intellectual property policy.
“For any panel to responsibly develop informed policies, the businesses that lead these industries must be part of the process. This report marks a lapse of judgement by the panel and a missed opportunity to make meaningful policy recommendations that speak for all stakeholders.
“We urge the government to set aside the report and work with industry to improve the recommendations.”
Smith’s concerns about overreaching and unconstitutionality have been echoed by others, including Michael Geist, one of the country’s leading experts on internet regulation.
He slammed the report in a blog post following its release and said the extensive proposals around regulating online content would be “unlikely to survive constitutional scrutiny” if enacted, and would also “likely violate Canada’s emerging trade commitments” under agreements, including CUSMA.
Specifically, Geist pointed to Article 19.17 of the new NAFTA deal which “prohibits parties from adopting measures that would hold Internet services liable for harms that arise from content posted by their users.”
But the panel’s report includes a proposal for the government to bring in legislation that would hold online services liable for exactly that.
“When it comes to harmful content, we recommend actions by the government both here at home and in the international context,” the report urged.
“The federal government should introduce legislation with respect to liability for harmful content and conduct using communications technologies — separate and apart from any responsibilities that may be imposed through communications legislation.”
He added he hopes Guilbeault and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains will ignore it.
“The recommendations should be rejected by Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault as both unnecessary to support a thriving cultural sector and inconsistent with a government committed to innovation and freedom of expression,” Geist wrote.
“The panel not only ignores the constitutionality of widespread speech regulation, but it … also sidesteps Canada’s trade commitments.”
But not everyone agrees.
The Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an advocacy group for the role of Canadian media in a strong democracy, praised the report as charting a road map for how the government can support domestic industries and interests against global companies.
“We need these reforms now to level the playing field that tilts in favour of the largest global online media giants to the detriment of our own media,” said Daniel Bernhard, executive director of the group, in a statement.
“Big Tech is really Big Culture. Google, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Apple — all of these companies have dominant information and culture businesses that need to be treated as such by the government.”
Berhard, in particular, praised the recommendation from the report for all streaming giants to pay sales tax and to be forced to create and promote Canadian content.
In addition to those recommendations, the panel also said they want those companies to be forced to disclose the algorithms they use to rank and promote content on their platforms.
Netflix and others, however, have warned in past submissions to the Canadian government that those algorithms are proprietary information.
The panel also called for the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to be made overseer of those foreign companies and for it to be given the power to force news aggregators like Yahoo to prioritize what it deems “trusted” Canadian news sources.
Their report also said that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) should be forced to wean itself off of advertising over the next five years.
That’s because the panel said that it should refocus its mandate to rely solely on the more than $1 billion it receives each year from Canadian taxpayers and stop pursuing the advertising dollars that private broadcasters rely on.
“Moreover, its focus on advertising puts it directly on a collision course with private broadcasters and even print media, as all pursue a dwindling pot of traditional advertising revenues and compete with giant foreign operators for the online business,” the panel warned.
“Reducing CBC/Radio-Canada’s reliance on this dwindling pot can provide some useful breathing space for the private broadcasters.”
Guilbeault did not say whether he supported that recommendation.