Fresh off imposing a five-hour gag order on committee debate on Bill C-10 and rushing through a secretive process in which dozens of amendments were passed without any debate, discussion or even disclosure of the amendments, the government is back for a gag order sequel. Yesterday, the Liberal government introduced another motion, this one designed to limit debate even further: one hour for debate at the report back stage and 75 minutes at third reading. In other words, less than 2 1/2 hours total for debate on the bill in the House of Commons. The motion was introduced before the updated Bill C-10 was even posted online, though it is now available.
The move led to hours of discussion on the motion last night, leading to a consistent drumbeat from Liberal, NDP and Bloc MPs, who kept asking what was in the bill that presented a concern for a freedom of expression. Left unsaid, is that at least part of the answer is what is not in the bill:
- Section 4.1, the provision that excluded user generated content from the scope of the Act, was removed from the bill at committee at the request of the government. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault was asked last night about the removal, but he unsurprisingly did not address the issue. By removing the section, the audio and video content that users post is treated as a “program” subject to regulation by the CRTC.
- Despite initially claiming that news sites were not covered by the bill, the reality is that a Heritage memo confirmed that they are within the scope of the legislation. Subjecting news sites offering audio or video to CRTC regulation raises speech concerns.
- There are no economic thresholds in the bill, meaning that the starting point is that Bill C-10 applies to all online audio and video services everywhere with some Canadian connection. As a Heritage memo noted, that includes podcast apps, workout video apps, pornography sites, and audiobooks. That remarkable breadth of regulatory coverage, all subject to the CRTC, has enormous implications for free speech.
In addition, there are provisions within the bill that absolutely raise concerns. For example, the discoverability provisions that are applied to user generated content empowers the CRTC to prioritize or de-prioritize speech. As I’ve noted previously, no other country in the world seeks to regulate speech in this manner. Further, consider who will do the regulating, namely the CRTC. The same CRTC has adopted a breathtakingly anti-consumer approach in recent decisions. The same CRTC that the Toronto Star noted has become “too cosy” with the telecom sector. The same CRTC whose chair met for beers with a leading executive of Bell, while key issues were before the Commission at the time.
Bill C-10 is a source of concern with respect to what is in, what is out, and based on a process that approved dozens of amendments without ever publicly disclosing them, consulting experts, inviting sub-amendments or doing anything else consistent with transparent and democratic lawmaking. Time is running out to oppose Bill C-10 in the House of Commons. Should the bill pass, it will head to the Senate where it will be incumbent on the Senators to better assess the free speech implications of Bill C-10 and conduct the democratic, public hearings that the Liberals rejected by ensuring that the dozens of amendments that were never part of a proper Parliamentary process are fully revisited and properly vetted.