The algorithm is gonna get you by Duncan C https://flic.kr/p/2kzyYQ7 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The algorithm is gonna get you by Duncan C https://flic.kr/p/2kzyYQ7 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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CRTC Chair Ian Scott Confirms Bill C-11 Can Be Used To Pressure Internet Platforms to Manipulate Algorithms

The Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications held an exceptionally important hearing as part of its Bill C-11 pre-study (which is about to change into a Bill C-11 study) last night featuring Canadian Heritage officials and CRTC Chair Ian Scott. I will have a second post on the officials, who struggled to provide clear answers to basic questions on everything from how to identify what counts as Cancon for user content (Youtube’s Content ID was suggested) to the absence of thresholds for what is covered by the bill (there are no thresholds and the government wants the ability to also target small streamers). But the key moment of the day came in questioning Scott about the discoverability and the potential for algorithmic manipulation.

The government has insisted that algorithms are off-limits in the bill. For example, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez told the House heritage committee:

Now, other people will say, “Oh my God, you’re going to play with algorithms.” No. It’s clearly written there that the CRTC cannot play with algorithms. Lots of things are said about the bill that have nothing to do with the bill.

From the moment the bill was introduced, I argued that the restriction on the CRTC making specific orders about algorithms was meaningless, noting:

the Commission may not tell the platform specifically how to adjust the algorithm but that is a distinction without a difference since it can issue orders on the end result as it is presented to subscribers or users.

Senator Miville- Dechêne raised precisely this issue, asking Scott about how the CRTC would implement discoverability requirements if algorithms were off the table. Scott responded:

Scott: It’s a very complex question. You’re looking for specifics. It is always dangerous or difficult for a regulator to tell you what we will do in the future. So I need to caveat my answer with that to begin. We will hold, we will issue notices, we will gather evidence. All Canadians, all forms of stakeholders will have an opportunity to give us their best advice and then we will render decisions that are in the public interest.

Miville- Dechêne: But you must have an idea of how this can be done.

Scott: I understand the question. I’m not trying to avoid it, I just wanted to clarify that we don’t bind ourselves by saying this is what will happen because we need to rely upon and develop the record.
But your question is important and well understood. You may be familiar with a report we were asked to produce by government some four years ago. We produced a report called Harnessing Change. In it, we outlined some of the issues that are now addressed in the legislation. One of the things that we talked about are the use of incentives. Also to reflect different lines of businesses, the rapid change that takes place. A lot of that can be characterized into saying we’re focused on outcomes. You quite properly put it as saying the desired outcome is to ensure Canadians can find Canadian music or Canadian stories. I think there will be a number of ways the industry can do it.

I’ll give you a simple example. Instead of saying – and the Act precludes this – we will make changes to your algorithms as many European countries are contemplating doing – instead, we will say this is the outcome we want. We want Canadians to find Canadian music. How best to do it? How will you do it? I don’t want to manipulate your algorithm. I want you to manipulate it to produce a particular outcome. And then we will have hearings to decide what are the best ways and explore it.

Scott’s comments confirm what Rodriguez has misleadingly denied and Bill C-11 critics have maintained for months: the bill’s discoverability requirements will obviously require algorithmic manipulation in order to prioritize Canadian content. The notion that the CRTC is only tinkering with algorithms indirectly rather than directly makes little difference given the harms that the regulation can cause to Canada’s digital creators who may find the algorithmic manipulation at home has disastrous consequences abroad. Given the confirmation that algorithmic manipulation due to regulatory requirements is absolutely a possible outcome of Bill C-11, it will be up to the Senate to fix the bill when it conducts extensive hearings in the fall.

15 Comments

  1. Discoverability is going to be as well received as telemarketing and spam. Pushing content people aren’t interested in will not attract viewers – it will annoy them. Couple that with the expected price increases from this Bill (Pablo said he expects the Bill will generate $1B a year in new spending – that works out to about $100 per household that subscribe to streaming services) and there likely will be some angry Canadians looking to take their frustrations out on supporters of this Bill.

  2. Carolyn Klitbo says:

    NO Bill C-11

  3. If an algorithm can be implemented, might it have the ability to promote one political party over another?

  4. It’s going to be interesting to see how streaming platforms handle the implementation of this and whether or not they’ll push back or quietly go along with it.

    As a (Canadian) user, I’d like to see is transparent labelling. In fact, a labelling requirement should be part of the law. I want to know if content being recommended to me is a result of legislation because, if the pool of recommendable content is reduced due to legislation, there’s going to be a tipping point where algorithm manipulation by bad actors becomes easier.

    If I were in charge of a large platform like YouTube, I would resist this change as much as possible. I would only surface regulated recommendations after real recommendations and all of the regulated recommendations would be as boring as possible with prominent labelling indicating they’re the result of government mandated content recommendations. I would force the government to mandate the exact content they want and I would turn “CanCon” into a toxic label before that happens.

    It’s going to be a huge mess no matter what. Is a video of the Canadian Parliament on the C-SPAN YouTube channel considered American or Canadian content? Are propaganda “news” channels going to start filling my feeds because they rank well for engagement and happen to be Canadian?

    What a boondoggle.

  5. Eileen B. says:

    How do I get a petition going to vote against the Bill C 11

    • The government has already heard, directly even — in the hearings, from Canadians that this bill is no good for Canadians. And they ignored them.

      Do you really think a petition is going to change anything?

      Clearly this government is captured by industry and are subverting the proper democratic process in order to satisfy their puppet masters.

      Canadians have no say in any of this. Big business is pulling the strings now. Sadly I expect this from the Corporatist (a.k.a. Conservative) party but now the Liberals have joined them. There is really nobody to vote for any more — well, nobody that will actually win a seat.

  6. What is a petition supposed to accomplish? At this point all we have is hoping for the Senate to delay it or water it down, and then for the actual implementation of this overly-broad legislation by the CRTC to bog down for years.

  7. Direct quote from Premier Legault

    “There’s a reason why we don’t put all cultures on the same level. They’re a threat to the Quebec culture and French language”.

    This is the same attitude that is behind Bill c11.

  8. Or platforms will just decide that all of this manipulation of their algorithms by the Canadian government is just not worth it and Netflix, Youtube, Disney, etc. will all just pull out of Canada (or have to raise their prices to cover the costs of Canadian-specific algorithm manipulation, to a point that nobody can/will afford to pay them any more) leaving us in the Cableco monopolized environment we were stuck in before Netflix came to town.

    Oh wait. That’s exactly what the Cablecos wanted to happen. So shocked.

    But in reality all that will happen is this will send consumers back to the illegal downloading platforms that they used to use before they were given an easy and fair way to get the content they wanted and not the content being rammed down their throats by the Canadian government — assuming the streaming platforms even exist in the future for Canadians.

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  11. millions of online platforms to change their websites extensive layouts and code for their own personal political agenda; However, the internet is global, and Canadian laws need not, and do not apply outside the confines of our borders. In fact if the Censorship Bill passes, we will likely see an exodus of major platforms for this reason, onto servers in nations with rational laws that apply to the 21’st century.

  12. (fixed) I’ve been saying all along, with Bill C-11 the government may try and force the tens of millions of online platforms to change their websites extensive layouts and code for their own personal political agenda; However, the internet is global, and Canadian laws need not, and do not apply outside the confines of our borders. In fact if the Censorship Bill passes, we will likely see an exodus of major platforms for this reason, onto servers in nations with rational laws that apply to the 21’st century.

    • It doesn’t matter where the servers live. The CRTC will have the power to block them. They will be able to order your ISP to not allow you to reach those services servers no matter where in the world you live.

      You might think “oh, well I will just get a VPN and then my ISP doesn’t know I am trying to get to Netflix”. There are two problems with that. First, that is just the next mole in the whack-a-mole game and the government will (and already have been flirting with) just make VPNs illegal and order the CRTC to prevent you from reaching any VPN service along with the content services that refuse to play by the cancon rules.

      The second problem is that the streaming services are already blocking access from VPNs to keep their content-masters (i.e. the copyright-consortium) happy with their geo-content rules.

      Trying to use the Internet in Canada is going to look an awful lot like trying to use it in oppressed authoritarian government countries like China where you only get access to content that the Government wants you get access to.

      The slippery slope starts with something as “innocent” as protecting Canadian cultural values, but can go anywhere — and is. There are two more bills coming with aims to further block content based on hate and harms. Again, it’s the silppery slope. What will be next? Anti-government reporting^Wpropaganda perhaps?

      Sounding like any other countries you’ve heard about?

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