Could Bill C-10 regulate your social media algorithm? Minister responsible won’t say

Click to play video: 'Canadian heritage minister won’t say whether Bill C-10 could regulate users’ social media algorithms'
Canadian heritage minister won’t say whether Bill C-10 could regulate users’ social media algorithms
WATCH: Canadian heritage minister won’t say whether Bill C-10 could regulate users’ social media algorithms – May 14, 2021

Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault won’t say whether Bill C-10 will give the CRTC the power to regulate the algorithms that decide what you see on your Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

The issue came up when he sat in the hot seat at the Canadian heritage committee on Friday, where MPs pressed him on a number of issues related to Bill C-10, which aims to modernize the Broadcasting Act.

“I just was wondering if the CRTC will have the power to regulate algorithms,” asked Conservative MP Rachael Harder during the meeting.

Guilbeault would not provide a definitive answer.

“The concept of discoverability is ensuring that as part of these platforms, Canadian content becomes more visible…for Canadians or, actually, any audience to watch or see. There won’t be any requirement, obviously, for users,” he said.

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When Harder suggested that this sounded like a yes, Guilbeault replied that his answer was “not a yes.” He did not, however, expand further — leaving it up in the air whether the bill would empower the CRTC to regulate social media algorithms.

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’

Broadly, the bill aims to modernize the Broadcasting Act — which saw its last major reform in 1991 before the internet was widely available — to reflect the fact that Canadians consume things like music and movies differently nowadays, often using streaming services or social media. It hopes to extend Canadian content requirements to these online platforms, ensuring the companies pay into cultural funds and display a certain amount of Canadian content.

Bill C-10 became a source of parliamentary discord after the Liberals removed a section of the bill that protected user-generated content and exempted it from regulation, meaning your Facebook and Instagram posts wouldn’t have been subject to CRTC rules.

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Section 4.1 of that proposed legislation originally exempted all social media platforms from CRTC regulation, despite the fact that they account for a significant portion of Canada’s consumption habits today.

That was the thinking behind the Liberals’ decision to drop the section from the bill — but the move also opened the door to CRTC regulation of user-generated content, like your YouTube videos.

And while it’ll be up to the CRTC to draft exactly what those regulations might look like, experts have warned this could allow the CRTC to regulate anything they’d like on social media.

“The effect of the removal is to take the position that all user-generated content, all TikTok videos, Instagram uploads, YouTube videos and the like … all that content is subject to CRTC regulation,” explained Michael Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, in an interview with Global News shortly after section 4.1 was removed.

Click to play video: 'Facebook calls for increased content regulation in Canada'
Facebook calls for increased content regulation in Canada

At the time, Geist expressed concerns about the impact the bill could have on social media algorithms — particular as it endeavors to require a certain amount of Canadian content to be suggested to a user.

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“I think that what they will do is look to the platforms to enforce whatever rules they want to establish,” he said.

“So, for example, if they want to increase the amount of Canadian content you see on your TikTok, for all that user generated content, one way of enforcing as against this individual speech would be to require a company like TikTok to do certain things with its algorithm and when it displays to the user.”

As he watched Harder and Guilbeault’s interaction about the regulation of algorithms, Geist voiced his concerns on Twitter, reiterating that the bill could lead to algorithm regulation.

In a bid to quash concerns about the bill’s impact on individual users, the government has amended it to refine the areas of social media that the CRTC would be empowered to regulate.

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The amendments left the CRTC with just three areas of regulation:

  • The CRTC will be able to ask a platform how much revenue it makes.
  • The CRTC will be able to ask for a certain percentage of those revenues to be funneled into Canadian cultural production funds.
  • Finally, it will be empowered to provide discoverability requirements for Canadian creators — meaning the CRTC can draft certain rules, like forcing a certain amount of content from the Arkells, Celine Dion or other Canadian artists to pop up in your recommended videos.

However, some experts weren’t convinced.

“The amendments introduced following that simply confirmed that user generated content, which is speech, will be subject to regulation. So we’re right back where we started,” said Peter Menzies, a former CRTC vice-chair and past newspaper publisher, reacting to the amendments shortly after they were put forward.

Guilbeault, meanwhile, spent much of Friday’s committee meeting doubling down on his insistence that the legislation won’t impact individual users.

“I’ve said it before and I will say it again. We are not targeting individuals. We are targeting the web giants, which are almost all American companies,” he said. “Our goal is simple: to get these multi-billion dollar companies that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in Canada every year to do their part to make sure our creators and artists are better paid and more visible online.”

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“We must remember that Canadian radio, television and cable companies have been subject to similar obligations for more than 50 years. In the spirit of fairness, Bill C-10 would extend these obligations to streaming services and social media platforms when they act as broadcasters.”

Guilbeault also pointed to a recent finding from the justice minister, who determined that the amended bill still doesn’t violate any charter rights —  such as freedom of expression.

“Bill C-10 respects the charter of rights and freedoms and not only that, but there are mechanisms in place for the CRTC to ensure that they do that,” he said.

“They have discretionary powers, but these powers are not absolute and that they have to be exercised in the light of the charter of rights and freedoms.”

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