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On Friday, the CRTC announced the first step of its implementation of the Online Streaming Act. Any “online streaming services” — be they podcast providers or video platforms — were given until Nov. 28 to make their first-ever registration with the CRTC.
It’s just a quick form laying out contact details and the name of a “designated representative” who can be expected to carry out subsequent CRTC instructions. But if the form isn’t received by then, it’s a Bill C-11 violation and thus a possible $10 million fine.
The announcement immediately attracted attention well beyond the usual circles that care about CRTC regulatory changes. Perennial world’s wealthiest man Elon Musk declared “Trudeau is trying to crush free speech in Canada.”
Investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald wrote a viral social media post branding the registration as the opening salvo of “one of the world’s most repressive online censorship schemes.”
The Canadian government, armed with one of the world’s most repressive online censorship schemes, announces that all “online streaming services that offer podcasts” must formally register with the government to permit regulatory controls:https://t.co/wHOloLgnY2 pic.twitter.com/6noTYceVsg
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) October 1, 2023
To this, defenders of the move shot back that the registration only applies to companies with annual revenues of more than $10 million. “That is very few companies offering podcasts in Canada,” wrote CBC Business reporter Anis R. Heydari.
But the $10 million threshold is a bit of a red herring given that the explicit end-goal of C-11 is to have all of Canada’s primary podcast and video platforms subject to federal controls. While very few Canadian podcasters and video streamers can claim eight-figure revenues, almost all of them rely on a distributor (such as Spotify or YouTube) that does — and it’s those distributors who will likely be mandated by Ottawa to enforce the requirements of C-11 on their users.
The text of the bill requires that any “online undertakings” shall “clearly promote and recommend Canadian programming … and ensure that any means of control of the programming generates results allowing its discovery.” It’s similar to how the CRTC currently doesn’t have much direct control over TV shows or artists, but it does strictly legislate the broadcasters who hire and distribute them.
In just a few weeks, if Bill C-11’s measures are enacted as written, Canadians will indeed be seeing a level of state control on their internet unlike anything else in the democratic world.
Given royal assent in April, the stated aim of Bill C-11 is to extend federal Canadian content (Cancon) controls to the internet. Or, as Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge explains it, to tell “more Canadian stories.”
Cancon has been the law of the land on TV and radio since 1971: Stations are required by law to feature a minimum quantity of Canadian music or television programs. Any licensed broadcaster must file regular programming reports with the CRTC, and if they’re not meeting quotas they risk losing their broadcast license.
For Canadian TV stations, the programming schedule must be between 35 and 50 per cent Canadian — a rule that even applies to pornography channels. Radio stations are similarly bound to ensure that their music playlists are about 35 per cent Canadian. This requirement is the singular reason, for instance, that Canadian classic rock stations give a disproportionate amount of airtime to Kim Mitchell’s Patio Lanterns.
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It gets really complicated when it comes to what Ottawa defines as “Canadian.” The CRTC maintains a complex flowchart of requirements to qualify as sanctioned Canadian content, and just one violation can get it rejected.
For instance, a movie can be written by Canadians, financed exclusively with Canadian money and shot in Canada with an all-Canadian crew, but if the lead actor can’t provide the CRTC with a Canadian passport the movie loses any hope of designation as a “Canadian” product.
It’s these requirements that have resulted in some truly bizarre Cancon anomalies over the years. Most of the Justin Bieber and Celine Dion catalogues are not considered Canadian, as they were recorded abroad and have non-Canadian co-writers. But Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot is Canadian; although recorded in the United States by American artists, it was written by Toronto’s Eddie Schwartz.
And CRTC regulatory power does not stop at merely checking the citizenship of content creators. Among other mandates, it’s also bound to ensure that broadcasters are reflecting the “linguistic duality of Canada.” Over the summer, the federal government even hinted that the CRTC could soon be mandated to ensure that “equity-seeking groups” are receiving the appropriate broadcasting “outcomes” to “address the repercussions of historical injustices and colonial legacies.”
This is from a speech today from CRTC Chair Vicky Eatrides, talking about upcoming Bill C-11 consultation on Internet streamer regulation. The absence of any reference to consumers and broader public as part of the “broad range of interests” is telling. https://t.co/i1hJOc70mx pic.twitter.com/fDsI5xVH9J
— Michael Geist (@mgeist) October 3, 2023
Bill C-11 was created with the explicit goal of overlaying this entire regulatory framework on the internet — a space that has previously been free from government content controls.
The idea is to ensure that a Canadian watching YouTube or listening to podcasts is receiving the same federally mandated quotas of officially sanctioned Canadian content as a Canadian watching TV or listening to the radio.
It’s obviously much trickier for Ottawa to impose broadcast quotas on the likes of YouTube or Netflix, but the CRTC has hinted that C-11 will likely result in those companies tweaking their algorithms to artificially give outsized attention to “Canadian content” while burying everything else.
In a June 2022 Senate hearing, CRTC chair Ian Scott said his regulators will most likely enforce C-11 by giving online streaming companies their required quotas of Canadian music and videos, but being agnostic in how that’s actually accomplished.
“I don’t want to manipulate your algorithm. I want you to manipulate it to produce a particular outcome,” was how Scott explained the process to senators.
Even though the Nov. 28 registration is only for “online streaming services” with revenue of more than $10 million, the entire point is to have these services ensure the requirements of Bill C-11 apply to their users. The users that meet CRTC guidelines are rewarded, while those don’t are proportionally punished.
In other words, a podcast that’s Canadian-produced and financed (and has submitted all appropriate details to Ottawa) might soon be prioritized over the New York Times podcast The Daily or The Joe Rogan Experience in terms of what users can easily find on Spotify or Apple podcasts.
And with the Nov. 28 callout capturing all of the major corners of the Canadian internet — from Apple to Netflix to YouTube to Facebook to “online news services” to “adult content websites” — that’s a lot of new areas suddenly coming under CRTC purview.
Vancouver-based YouTuber J.J. McCullough was a prominent critic of C-11 as it moved through Parliament, in large part because he said it would impose a regulatory burden on Canadian YouTubers who would now be forced to file financials, scripts and crew details with the federal government to prove that they were sufficiently Canadian.
“Once all the big platforms have been registered with the government, your ability to be successful as a Canadian Youtuber or podcaster or online musician WILL be dependent on the degree your content is considered ‘Canadian enough’ by the government,” McCullough wrote Tuesday.
I want to be super clear about something: in the next two months, Canada will have passed a point of no return when it comes to government regulation of the internet. After November, once all the big platforms have been registered with the government, your ability to be…
— J.J. McCullough 🥶 (@JJ_McCullough) October 3, 2023
IN OTHER NEWS
Just two weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of staging an assassination on Canadian soil, New Delhi has told 41 Canadian diplomats to pack up and go home. If you’re wondering how many total diplomats Canada has in India, the answer is 62 — so, two-thirds of the current total are being declared persona non grata. The Trudeau government’s only stated evidence for the accusation is that unnamed “security agencies” were following “credible allegations” that India arranged the June shooting death of Sikh nationalist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a man considered a terrorist by the Indian government. There have been leaked reports in the interim two weeks that the accusation might be based on Indian diplomatic conversations possibly intercepted by a foreign intelligence agency, but Ottawa has not budged from its assertion that New Delhi should just simply trust them on this.
And in other “censor the internet” news, Google is still planning to block news content as a direct reaction to C-18, another Liberal bill designed to control the circulation of content online. The bill makes it mandatory for web giants such as Google or Facebook to surrender a not-insubstantial portion of their Canadian revenues to Canadian news providers (such as yours truly) in exchange for the legal right to allows user to share news links. The somewhat expected reaction of Facebook and Google is that they both decided to back out of news-sharing altogether – which is indeed a way of complying with C-18, although not the one that Ottawa wanted. The Liberals tried to smooth things over by slightly reducing the amount of revenue they have to surrender, but Google says they’re not buying it.
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