Plans to regulate user-generated internet content are both worrying and pointless

Click to play video: 'O’Toole says new amendments to Bill C-10 ‘do not protect the freedom of expression’'
O’Toole says new amendments to Bill C-10 ‘do not protect the freedom of expression’
WATCH: (May 7) Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole said Friday that new amendments introduced by the Liberals on Thursday evening, which propose new limits on how the CRTC regulates social media posts under Bill C-10, “do not protect the freedom of expression.” – May 7, 2021

As a broadcaster employed by a broadcaster in the Canadian broadcast industry, I obviously have a vested interest in the future of that industry — and, more specifically, the extent to which the government intends on regulating it.

It is certainly the position of my employer (i.e. Corus Entertainment) that our current regulatory regime is not reflective of the current broadcasting landscape, and that the regulatory burden falls heavily on more traditional Canadian broadcasters who are increasingly competing with the unregulated content being generated by international tech giants such as Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify.

In other words, there is not a level playing field at present.

There is little doubt that in our digital world, the concept of “broadcasting” has evolved, yet Canada’s Broadcasting Act seems stuck in a different era. Reasonable people can disagree on what a modern Broadcasting Act might look like, and whether that means different regulations, additional regulations, or fewer regulations.

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The federal government’s Bill C-10 is ostensibly aimed at addressing all of these questions and bringing the Broadcasting Act into the 21st century. Unfortunately, though a combination of ineptitude, hubris and regulatory overreach, things have gone completely off the rails.

Again, what constitutes a “broadcaster” these days is a little nebulous, but it seems obvious that Canadians themselves — all 38-million of you — are not broadcasters. Furthermore, it seems obvious that what Canadians post or share online does not constitute a broadcast and it’s clearly not something that the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) should concern itself with.

All of this was obvious at one point. Bill C-10 included specific exemptions that made it clear that user-generated content was not something that would fall under CRTC regulation. After all, why would it?

Click to play video: 'Instagram removes MMIWG content on Red Dress Day'
Instagram removes MMIWG content on Red Dress Day

Seemingly out of nowhere, at a recent Friday meeting of the Heritage Committee, that exemption was removed. This represents a fundamental change to the legislation and a fundamental shift to this whole conversation. We’ve gone from talking about movies and series on Netflix or Amazon Prime to the videos that individual Canadians might post on TikTok or YouTube.

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Following the ensuing — and predictable — outcry, the government eventually pledged to go back and further amend the legislation to make it “crystal clear” that uploads from individual users wouldn’t fall under whatever regulations C-10 ultimately produces. That, however, came after days of mixed messages from the Liberals about why the exemption was removed in the first place.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be “crystal clear” is instead rather murky. The amendment brought forward to the committee on Thursday still leaves the door open to user-generated content being regulated by the CRTC.

Dr. Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, maintains that Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has broken his promise in two ways. For one, the amendment that was removed in the first place has not been replaced. Additionally, the new amendment specifically refers to the “discoverability” of Canadian content, which very clearly allows for regulating how user-generated content is promoted and prioritized.

Ultimately, as Dr. Geist and other experts have noted, this becomes a free speech issue. The whole point of these amendments was to prevent it from becoming one. Yes, it’s difficult to imagine how the CRTC could possibly police all of this, but the very idea that they might is rather chilling — not to mention baffling. Even if we assume no sinister intent on the government’s part, it’s impossible to understand what the objective might be in the first place.

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This whole debacle might just poison the well around Bill C-10 and the broader conversation around the future of the Broadcasting Act. Canadians are going to rightly bristle at the idea that the CRTC needs to regulate their uploads and their social media feeds. The legislation is now tarred by this, even if the government eventually comes to its senses — which hopefully they will.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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