Reading between the Lines of Canada’s Social Media Bill


No one wants to be restricted or regulated.

Restrictions on actions and regulation of one’s conduct are often seen as a violation of democratic and liberal values that underpin the modern world. However, even advanced countries have regulators overseeing the conduct of various players on multiple levels. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is a federal agency overseeing the conduct of financial intermediaries in the world’s largest economy, the US. In such cases, regulatory bodies are bona fide entities ensuring transparency and stability in the system, besides acting as guardians of natural justice.

What is the aim of Canada’s C-10 Bill?

The federal government in Canada has come up with the C-10 Bill that can soon become a law once it receives approval from the Senate. The Bill, titled ‘An Act to amend the Broadcasting Act’, has courted controversies since it was introduced in November 2020. The primary intent of the legislation is to bring social media entities, including US tech giants like Netflix, Facebook and YouTube, under the purview of the Canadian Radio Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

As far as the ruling party’s stance is concerned, the legislation will pave the way for CRTC to impose the same regulations currently implemented on traditional broadcasters like Rogers and Bell. It will mandate digital content companies to earmark a slice of their revenue for contribution to the Canada Media Fund, which can translate into funding local content creation and promotion in the country. The beneficiaries will include Canadian artists. On its face, the bill brings precisely what Canada needs: bona fide promotion of local content on social media platforms that usually carry more content related to the United States.

Britain’s Culture Secretary has also suggested a similar approach and will soon float a white paper to bring streaming services under the Office of Communications’ (Ofcom) purview. Presently, Ofcom oversees broadcasting on conventional platforms.

A level-playing field or violation of free speech?

Regulation is not bad if it upholds the interests of various stakeholders. The world has changed in the past few decades, and streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube have become media behemoths with staggering market values. 

Users are hooked on smartphones, and consumption has decisively shifted from traditional broadcasting on television and radio to online streaming. There is a reason why major studios and broadcasters have launched their streaming services to align their business goals with the prevailing landscape.

Having a level-playing field seems desirable, given it is in the interest of equity. Broadcasting of content, be it by traditional players or by Facebook or Amazon Prime, need similar regulations. 

However, the same cannot simultaneously and even inadvertently infringe upon the personal choices of individuals.

Regarding the C-10 Bill, the Canadian government assured critics that user-generated content would remain out of the scope of regulatory oversight. The CRTC, the government says, will not infringe upon the freedom of expression of millions of Canadians who use social media platforms to showcase their art. Critics have invoked the Charter of Rights’ guaranteeing free speech to every Canadian. What exactly will play out after the bill receives Senate’s approval is not yet clear.

Countries seeking revenues from rich streaming giants

Tech giants are some of the world’s most valuable and profitable companies. Netflix trumped all other stocks in the S&P 500 and emerged as the best performer between 2010 and 2019. It gave investors over 4,000 per cent return, and the frenzy was driven mainly by people’s craze for digital streaming services. The world’s most valued company, Apple, with an over US$2 trillion market cap, has come out with its streaming platform, Apple TV Plus, which boasts of names like Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.

The G7 recently agreed on a minimum corporate tax of at least 15 per cent in the wake of tech companies earning billions in revenues but failing to pay their fair share of taxes. The pandemic has heightened the fiscal worries of governments, and countries, including the US and Canada, have all breached permissible limits of fiscal deficit. Stimuluses running in trillions of dollars are being doled out to maintain demand in subdued economies and prevent any further plunge into slowdown.

By bringing streaming platforms within the purview of broadcasting regulations, countries like Canada may seek funding for programs to support the local media industry. Netflix, YouTube and others earn enough to fund the promotion of local content.

Regulation or restriction?

No one indeed wants to be regulated or restricted. But there is a difference between having checks and balances to ensure natural justice and restricting personal freedom. 

The C-10 Bill is yet to become the law of the land. It may empower the CRTC to create a level-playing field for all broadcasters, traditional or social media. However, if the provisions apply to personal choices and freedom of expression of unaffiliated social media users, empowering the CRTC to impose restrictions, the C-10 bill can be revisited.

Every other country, including Britain, are looking at ways to implement similar law to ensure both: level playing field in broadcasting and preservation of the right to free speech of individuals. 

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