Canada’s Online Streaming Act (Bill C-11) is one of several recent attempts by Western governments to crush online speech while claiming that they support free expression.
The bill is being pushed by Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez — a politician who believes that unregulated speech “erodes the foundations of democracy.” And it has the full support of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — a world leader who previously said freedom of expression isn’t “freedom to hate.”
The Trudeau regime first attempted to pass a version of this bill in 2020. However, this bill (Bill C-10) failed in 2021 after mass pushback over the way it attempted to censor online speech.
After Bill C-10 died, Pierre Poilievre, the current leader of the Canadian Conservative Party of Canada who was serving as a Member of Parliament (MP) in 2021, warned critics of Bill C-10 to “make sure that we’re ready the next time Trudeau and his team come for our freedom of expression.”
And just one year later, Trudeau and his team did just that by resurrecting Bill C-10 and renaming it Bill C-11.
The bill gives Canada’s communications regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), increased powers to regulate “programs” — a definition that applies to almost all forms of audio-visual content that are uploaded by Canadian citizens.
It will empower the CRTC to set content promotion and demotion rules for Canadian content and require platforms to make financial contributions towards Canadian content.
As with most censorship bills, Bill C-11 uses freedom of expression as a red herring and claims that the bill will be “applied in a manner that is consistent with…the freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence enjoyed by broadcasting undertakings.”
But the bill is so restrictive that even censorship-loving YouTube has warned that the bill will harm creators and creators are considering leaving the country if it passes.
Here are the main things you need to know about Bill C-11:
It empowers government regulators to censor user-generated content
When pushing Bill C-11, Rodriguez has implied that it won’t apply to user-generated content by repeating the phrase “platforms are in, users are out.” However, the actual text of the bill gives the CRTC vast powers to decide whether almost any piece of user-generated content uploaded by Canadian users falls under the scope of the bill.
Section 4.2 of the bill states that the CRTC “may make regulations prescribing programs in respect of which this Act applies.”
And while the CRTC is expected to consider three factors when making these regulations, Dr. Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, notes that these factors are only considerations that the CRTC can simply ignore.
“Much like the lip service the Commission has given at times to policy directions, the CRTC is free under the bill to confirm that it ‘considered’ the factors in setting the regulations and adopt a different approach,” Geist said.
The bill itself empowers the CRTC to indirectly censor any content that falls under the scope of Bill C-11 by imposing conditions on Canadian apps, social media platforms, and websites.
One of the most controversial conditions the CRTC can impose is a condition related to “the presentation of programs and programming services for selection by the public, including the showcasing and the discoverability of Canadian programs and programming services, such as original French language programs.”
This condition lets the CRTC decide whether content that falls within its scope should be boosted or demoted on Canadian apps, platforms, and websites. And according to Geist, this condition could result in platforms that host user-generated content being forced to demote content and apply warning labels to a wide range of lawful content.
It may target a wide range of apps, platforms, and websites
While most of the discussion around Bill C-11 has focused on how it will impact user-generated content on social media, the potential scope of the bill is actually much wider because it doesn’t contain any provisions that limit its scope to just social media platforms.
And an early government memo on Bill C-10 (the Bill C-11 predecessor) acknowledged that the Canadian government wanted to target audiobook services such as Audible, podcast apps such as Pocket Casts and Stitcher, music streaming services such as Apple Music and Amazon Music, sports streaming services such as DAZN and MLB.tv, video streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+, niche streaming services such as BritBox, websites such as the BBC and TVO, gaming platforms such as PlayStation, home workout apps, and more.
It will limit the reach of independent Canadian creators
Even if the CRTC doesn’t use its Bill C-11 powers to push for the demotion of lawful content, any presentation or discoverability conditions that are imposed on apps, platforms, or websites are still likely to limit the reach of independent Canadian creators and boost mainstream media outlets.
According to Geist, the current rules for determining whether a piece of content is “certified Canadian content” are “geared toward well-established productions that fall outside the digital first world” and it’s unclear whether content from independent, digital first creators even qualifies as certified Canadian content. This means that content from large Canadian media outlets is much more likely to be selected for prioritization when any Bill C-11 presentation and discoverability conditions are imposed.
Geist argues that “the impact will be incredibly damaging to digital first creators, who may find their content effectively de-prioritized in their own country based on Canadian legislation as implemented by the CRTC.”
Even if independent creator content is selected for prioritization, the way Bill C-11’s presentation and discoverability conditions force Canadian content on users who aren’t necessarily interested in the content is likely to result in lower engagement rates. These reduced engagement rates will result in algorithms recommending Canadian content less frequently outside of Canada and ultimately reduce the reach of independent Canadian content in non-Canadian countries.
It will give Canadians an inferior online experience
The way Bill C-11 forces Canadian content into the feeds of Canadian users also has a detrimental impact on their online experience. Instead of being able to fill their feeds with interesting content from their favorite creators, Canadians will have a certain amount of potentially irrelevant content forced on them by the CRTC’s requirements.
Not only does the bill prevent Canadians from being able to fully control and customize their feeds but it also makes it more time-consuming for them to find non-Canadian content. Even if Canadian users take explicit steps to seek out non-Canadian content, the requirements of Bill C-11 will continuously push a pre-determined amount of Canadian content into their feeds.
In addition to this, Bill C-11 could reduce the number of apps, platforms, and websites that are available to Canadians because the high cost of compliance may result in some companies pulling their services out of Canada.
Furthermore, Canadians will likely have to pay more to access subscription-based apps, platforms, and websites that fall under the scope of Bill C-11 as the affected companies pass on the cost of compliance to users.
It could create privacy issues for independent Canadian creators
Bill C-11’s discoverability conditions could create privacy issues for independent Canadian creators because the only practical way for these creators to verify that they’re Canadian would be to hand over sensitive personal information.
Canada’s federal privacy commissioner, Philippe Dufresne, admitted this would be the case during his appearance before a Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications.
“Discoverability conditions could nonetheless potentially require the adaptation of existing algorithms that rely on personal information or the analysis of personal information to determine whether user-generated content is Canadian,” Dufresne told the committee.
And these privacy restrictions aren’t limited to algorithms. The more personal data companies hold, the more devastating the privacy impact is on their users if there’s ever a data breach.
It disproportionately impacts small platforms
Most large apps, platforms, and websites have significant data harvesting capabilities, utilize advanced algorithms, and generate billions of dollars in revenue. These resources make it relatively easy for these platforms to comply with Bill C-11’s requirements to identify Canadian content, prioritize Canadian content in a way that’s compliant with CRTC orders, and make their financial contributions towards the production of Canadian content.
However, smaller platforms with more rudimentary technology and less revenue will find it harder to abide by the requirements of Bill C-11. Some may even find the cost of compliance to be so prohibitive that they’re left with no choice but to pull out of the Canadian market altogether.
The potential privacy issues associated with Bill C-11 could also harm smaller platforms that are attempting to differentiate from their Big Tech counterparts by offering a more private experience for their users. These platforms could be forced to start collecting personal information to comply with the bill’s discovery conditions, and in doing so, lose their competitive advantage over the tech giants.
Stay up to date with Bill C-11
Despite the major problems with Bill C-11, it has already made its way through the Canadian House of Commons and it’s on the verge of passing the Senate. However, there are some members of the Senate that oppose the bill and hope to kill it before it becomes law.
You can read the full text of Bill C-11 here.
You can track the progress of Bill C-11 here.