The Canadian government’s support for net neutrality has long stood as a core principle of its approach to the Internet. In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would defend net neutrality and expressed concern about the attacks on net neutrality in the U.S. That same year, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly made net neutrality a foundational part of Canadian cultural policy, stating that “as a government, we stand by the principle of net neutrality.” ISED Minister Navdeep Bains adopted the same position, stating “Net neutrality is one of the critical issues of our times, much like freedom of the press and freedom of expression before it.”
Given that freedom of expression is taking a back seat in Bill C-10 with the regulation of user generated content, perhaps it was inevitable that the government would also reverse its position on net neutrality. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault recently gave an interview to the Toronto Star in which he appears to back away from supporting net neutrality, equating it to any Internet regulation:
During a recent interview with the Star, Guilbeault said those criticizing Bill C-10 “believe in this concept of net neutrality. Those people, whatever we do, whatever amendments we bring to C-10, won’t be happy because they don’t want regulations,” he said.
Guilbeault is right that Canadians “believe in this concept of net neutrality.” I thought the Prime Minister and the government did too. Indeed, net neutrality has been an essential policy measure for creators to ensure that their content is accessible to all.
I warned last year that the government’s Internet plans raised net neutrality concerns. Net neutrality in Canada is largely derived from two provisions in the Telecommunications Act. Section 27(2) on unjust discrimination:
No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage.
and Section 36 on the content of messages:
Except where the Commission approves otherwise, a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.
Taken together, the provisions form the bedrock of net neutrality in Canada by prohibiting powerful intermediaries (namely ISPs) from using their position as network providers to give themselves an undue preference (eg. grant a preference for their content over third party content) or interfere with content that runs on their network. While the focus of net neutrality is rightly on telecom companies, Bill C-10 envisions a different intermediary – the Canadian government via the CRTC – to require sites and services to alter the content of their messages.
Internet sites and services will still be available to Canadians, but Bill C-10 will mean that Internet content will not be treated in a neutral, equal fashion. The mandated Canadian content discoverability requirements that would be applicable to all user generated content – every video, podcast or other audio-visual work is treated as a program in Bill C-10 subject to regulation by the CRTC – will mean that a government regulator will influence what Canadians see when they access services such as TikTok, Instagram, and Youtube, not the sites themselves.
Altering the presentation content to support Canadian content is precisely what Guilbeault and the government have in mind in Bill C-10. As he signals in his comments to the Toronto Star, the government is abandoning its longstanding commitment to net neutrality. In fact, with plans to introduce website blocking, mandated content takedowns, and the creation of a new social media regulator, the future of net neutrality in Canada is very much in doubt.