Weeks into a high profile debate over Bill C-10, the issue of discoverability of Canadian content has emerged as a policy tug of war between supporters that want the CRTC to intervene by mandating the discoverability of Canadian content on sites such as Youtube and Tiktok and critics that argue the approach would raise significant freedom of expression and net neutrality concerns.
But what exactly is “discoverability” and how would it impact both users and the thousands of Canadian creators that have already found success on digital platforms?
Fenwick McKelvey is a communications professor at Concordia University who has written more about the discoverability and algorithmic media than anyone in Canada. He has regularly participated in CRTC hearings and was the co-author of a leading study on the issue commissioned by Canadian Heritage. He joins the Law Bytes podcast to talk about discoverability, his frustrations with its implementation in Bill C-10, and the potential consequences for Canadian creators.
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The CRTC yesterday released its wholesale Internet rates decision, shocking the industry and consumer groups by reversing its 2019 ruling and virtually guaranteeing increased costs for consumers and less competition for Internet services. Indeed, within hours, TekSavvy, one of the largest independent providers, announced that it was withdrawing from the forthcoming spectrum auction and would no longer offer mobile services. In other words, the competitive and consumer cost reverberations from the decision will impact both broadband and wireless services. When the increased costs coming from Bill C-10 for Internet services are added to the equation, the Internet could get a lot more expensive in Canada.
Much of the blame rests with the government as it appointed CRTC Chair Ian Scott, who has presided over a dismantling of a pro-consumer, pro-innovative policy approach. Moreover, the former ISED Minister Navdeep Bains opened the door to this decision last summer by inviting the CRTC to re-examine the 2019 decision and current ISI Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is seemingly completely uninterested in his own department’s digital files. I’ve written that this government has become the most anti-Internet government in Canadian history and the path that led to yesterday’s decision vaults to near the top of the evidence list.
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Bill C-10 was once again a major topic of discussion during Question Period in the House of Commons yesterday, with questions focusing on the broad scope of the law, freedom of speech concerns with regulating user generated content, and the inconsistencies in Cancon rules. Yet the issue that seemed to garner increased attention was whether Bill C-10 violates the government’s longstanding commitment to net neutrality.
The net neutrality issue was sparked earlier this month by Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who suggested in an interview that critics of Bill C-10 were supporters of net neutrality, a comment that many took to indicate a shift away from supporting net neutrality. The government has since denied a change in policy and maintains that Bill C-10, which includes the discoverability rules that would empower the CRTC to prioritize or de-prioritize content on user social media feeds, does not undermine net neutrality.
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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has frequently claimed that his legislative goal in Bill C-10 is to “get money from web giants”. As last week’s post on a Canadian Heritage departmental memo highlighted, Bill C-10 targets far more than just “web giants” as the bill adopts a far broader regulatory approach that targets podcast apps such as Stitcher and Pocket Casts, audiobook services such as Audible, home workout apps, pornographic sites, sports streaming services such as MLB.TV and DAZN, niche video services such as Britbox, and even broadcaster websites such as the BBC.
The effect of significant new regulatory costs on these services is likely to spark one of two responses: some services will simply pass along the costs to consumers in the form of new Cancon surcharges, while others will likely block the Canadian market altogether. The Cancon surcharges, when combined with the new sales taxes on digital services that take effect later this year, could lead to the costs of digital services skyrocketing by nearly 50 per cent in Canada. If that happens, Guilbeault will be getting money from consumers, not the web giants.
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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has tried to deflect public concern with the regulation of user generated content under Bill C-10 by claiming the intent is to make the “web giants” pay their fair share. Yet according to an internal government memo to Guilbeault signed by former Heritage Deputy Minister Hélène Laurendeau released under the Access to Information Act, the department has for months envisioned a far broader regulatory reach. The memo identifies a wide range of targets, including podcast apps such as Stitcher and Pocket Casts, audiobook services such as Audible, home workout apps, adult websites, sports streaming services such as MLB.TV and DAZN, niche video services such as Britbox, and even news sites such as the BBC and CPAC.
The regulations would bring the full power of CRTC regulation over these sites and services. This includes requiring CRTC registration, disclosure of financial and viewership data, Canadian content discoverability requirements (yes, that could mean Canadian discoverability for pornography services), and mandated payments to support Canadian film, television, and music production. The list also notably identifies potential regulation of Youtube Music, Snapchat Originals, and other social media services whose supposed exclusion has been cited as the rationale to extend regulation to user generated content.
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