Last night, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault posted a remarkable tweet that should heighten concerns about Bill C-10, forthcoming online harms legislation, and the government’s intent with respect to free speech. In the weeks since it opened the door to treating all user generated content as a “program” subject to CRTC regulation, there has been mounting public criticism and concern about the implications for free speech. While the tech companies have remained relatively silent, Canadians have been speaking out. Those voices now include the Government of Saskatchewan, with Minister of Justice Gord Wyant writing to Guilbeault to urge the federal government to stop Bill C-10 from proceeding or amend it to ensure that “all creative Internet content generated by Canadians will be exempt from any regulatory supervision by federal government agencies.”
Given the opposition – as well as Guilbeault’s well-documented disastrous interviews on CBC and CTV – one would have thought the Minister would be seeking to assuage public concern. Instead, Guilbeault took to Twitter last night to suggest that the public anger over Bill C-10 was a matter of “public opinion being manipulated at scale through a deliberate campaign of misinformation by commercial interests that would prefer to avoid the same regulatory oversight applied to broadcast media.”
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The government’s defence of Bill C-10, the Broadcasting Act reform bill, took another hit over the weekend with what might have been the worst interview yet by Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault (and that includes the CBC interview ten days ago that people are still talking about). In the span of eight minutes, Guilbeault managed to cite the wrong section in the bill, indicate that social media users with a large number of followers would be regulated, and justify the regulation by assuring that it would come from the CRTC, rather than the government directly.
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This past week Bill C-10, Internet free speech, and the government’s digital policy agenda went mainstream as a lead topic in government, the media, and among many Canadians. This week’s Law Bytes podcast departs from the standard format as I explain why the bill has suddenly become a hot topic, how the government has been inconsistent and at times incoherent in its attempts to justify the bill, and why the concerns regarding freedom of speech and CRTC over-regulation are absolutely justified.
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For the past week, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has promised to address widespread concern over Bill C-10, the Broadcasting Act reform bill. After the issue emerged as an increasingly prominent part of House of Commons debate, Guilbeault stated;
we also want to make sure that the content that people upload on social media won’t be considered as programming under the act and that it won’t be regulated by the CRTC. And that’s why we will be bringing forward another amendment that will make this crystal clear.
That statement was repeated on Wednesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons:
We have clearly indicated that this is not about individual users or about what Canadians themselves publish online. As the Minister of Canadian Heritage said, we will propose an amendment to make this crystal clear to us and to everyone else.
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The uproar over Bill C-10 has rightly focused on the government’s decision to remove safeguards for user generated content from the bill. Despite insistence from Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault that users will not be regulated and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that users will not be required to make Cancon contributions, the reality is that the removal of Section 4.1 from the bill means that all user generated content is treated as a “program” under the Act and therefore subject to regulation by the CRTC.
That regulation is extensive and can include “discoverability” requirements that would allow the regulator to mandate that platforms prioritize some users’ content over others. Section 9.1(1)(b) of the bill states:
The Commission may, in furtherance of its objects, make orders imposing conditions on the carrying on of broadcasting undertakings that the Commission considers appropriate for the implementation of the broadcasting policy set out in subsection 3(1), including conditions respecting
(b) the presentation of programs for selection by the public, including the discoverability of Canadian programs;
Since the government is now treating user generated content as a program under the Act, this effectively reads that the CRTC can establish conditions respecting the presentation of user generated content for selection by the public, including the discoverability of user generated content.
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