My post on why Bill C-11’s discoverability rules are a flawed solution in search of a problem demonstrated that there is little incentive for Internet platforms to make it difficult for Canadians to find Canadian content. Indeed, experience with both Netflix and Youtube suggest that there is every reason to ensure the availability of such content and to recommend it where users show an interest. Yet proponents of discoverability regulations may still argue that even if they are unlikely to accomplish much, what is the harm in trying? The simple answer is that the regulated discoverability requirements are likely to harm Canadian creators, resulting in lost audiences and potentially millions in lost revenues.
How could establishing CRTC mandated discoverability requirements for platforms such as Youtube, TikTok or Twitch harm Canadian creators?
First, it is important to reconfirm that Bill C-11 does apply to many digital first creators, notwithstanding Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez claims to the contrary. Rodriguez insists that he has met digital first creators, repeatedly and somewhat oddly referencing their ages (“I did meet with digital first creators and those were honestly fascinating conversations. Some of them were 18, 19, 20, 21 years old. They are all over the world. They do incredible things. I love it.” or “They’re great. I have met with them. They’re amazing. They’re so creative. Some of them are 19, 20, 21.“) and trying to provide assurance that the law is not intended to cover their work. However, Bill C-11 treats all audio-visual content as a “program” under the law and the language easily covers this form of commercial content on Internet platforms.
Second, assuming they are covered, it is not at all clear how Canadian digital first creators will even be identified in order to be prioritized through the discoverability regulations. The certified Canadian content rules are not only flawed (often excluding Canadian stories but including co-productions with scarce connection to Canada), but geared toward well-established productions that fall outside the digital first world. This is not uncommon as no country in the world seeks to regulate Youtube videos, TikTok clips, or Twitch streams as programs subject to domestic content rules. The platforms do not collect the relevant information and there are no obvious standards to apply. The questions abound: is a Canadian Youtuber living in Los Angeles Canadian for discoverability purposes? Does a TikToker from France visiting Montreal qualify as Canadian content? Is a Twitch streamer in Vancouver that streams together with a gamer in Japan Canadian content? How about a podcaster that is based in Mexico but uses a Toronto production and hosting company?
Given that there are no obvious answers to any of these questions, it is entirely possible that none of this content will count for discoverability purposes. Instead, other content that neatly ticks the right boxes will receive prioritization. The impact will be incredibly damaging to digital first creators, who may find their content effectively de-prioritized in their own country based on Bill C-11 as implemented by the CRTC.
Third, the global effects on Canadian content more broadly will be even more damaging. Proponents of discoverability want the platforms to tweak their algorithms to prioritize Canadian content. However, this is approach misunderstands how algorithmic choices work, leading to a likely de-prioritization of the content worldwide. In other words, Bill C-11 trades prioritizing Canadian content for a market of 38 million people for de-prioritizing that same content for a global market that runs into the billions of viewers.
Why is that terrible deal the trade-off?
Simply put, the algorithmic choices on services such as Youtube and TikTok are based on numerous data points. For example, for each page featuring a dozen possible videos to click on, Youtube will record not only which video is viewed, but which are not. The more a video is displayed but not watched, the stronger the signal that the content is not interesting to Youtube users. With Bill C-11 discoverability requirements, there will be an increase in the number of Canadian videos that are displayed to Canadian users. Given that these recommendations are based on regulations rather than user interest, they are very likely to achieve much lower click-through rates than most other content. Those videos will continue to be displayed in Canada given the CRTC regulations, but outside Canada they will get less exposure since the algorithm will discern that the content is not of interest to most users.
This phenomenon occurs for all sorts of issues. For example, newspapers rank click-through rates on articles, taking notice not only of which articles get more clicks, but which do not. Those that get fewer clicks are deemed less interesting to subscribers and less likely to get future coverage. The same applies with respect to user generated content on platforms. The difference is that the CRTC will still require display of the content (much like the newspapers being required to run stories it knows are of little interest to subscribers), leading to a spiral of ever-increasing exposure in Canada and ever decreasing exposure everywhere else.
This could have a devastating impact on Canadian digital first creators, many of whom generate the majority of their revenues outside the country. If caught by the CRTC regulations, they run the risk of less global revenues with discoverability rules that ultimately create enormous harm. While the Rodriguez may have met with them, it doesn’t appear he listened or understood what they had to say. If he did, he would have addressed their concerns by removing elements of his bill that threaten to harm their careers.