For more than a year, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has clung to the Bill C-11 mantra of “platforms in, users out”. When presented with clear evidence from thousands of digital creators, the former chair of the CRTC, and numerous experts that that wasn’t true, the Senate passed compromise language to ensure that platforms such as Youtube would be caught by the legislation consistent with the government’s stated objective, but that user content would not. Last night, Rodriguez rejected the compromise amendment, turning his back on digital creators and a Senate process lauded as one of the most comprehensive ever. In doing so, he has left no doubt about the government’s true intent with Bill C-11: retain power and flexibility to regulate user content.
While the decision does not come as a total shock – Rodriguez suggested last month that he would reject any substantive amendments – it still stings. The Senate amendment crafted by Trudeau-appointed Senators Simons and Miville-Dechêne took the government at its word that their objective was to ensure sound recordings on services such as Youtube were caught by the bill. Their amendment did that, while scoping out user content on sites such as TikTok that might be captured by virtue of the inclusion of indirect commercial revenue as a criteria for the CRTC to consider in the regulatory process (the irony that the government is both banning TikTok from its devices and views the power to regulate user content on the platform as a cultural priority should not be lost on anyone).
The government’s official response to the Senate amendments, posted as a motion that will be voted on by the House before heading back again to the Senate, accepted some amendments, rejected others (notably new age verification requirements), and even amended some amendments. But on the issue of user content regulation, Rodriguez offered a flat rejection of an amendment narrowly tailored to meet his stated objectives:
respectfully disagrees with amendment 3 because this would affect the Governor in Council’s ability to publicly consult on, and issue, a policy direction to the CRTC to appropriately scope the regulation of social media services with respect to their distribution of commercial programs, as well as prevent the broadcasting system from adapting to technological changes over time;
The rationale behind the rejection finally removes any pretense of the government’s true Bill C-11 intent. Rather than citing misleading lobbying claims opposed to the change, it calls it like it is: the government wants the power to direct the CRTC on user content today and the power to exert further regulation tomorrow. Regulatory power over user content today is confirmed by a bill that covers user TikToks, many Youtube videos, podcasts, and other content and future regulation is plainly framed as “adapting to technological changes”.
While the government may seek to provide assurances that it will issue a policy direction that addresses some of these concerns, that is neither strictly binding on the CRTC nor a substitute for providing legislative certainty that user content regulation falls outside of the bill. There are still several steps left for the bill including a House vote that will likely make the NDP and Bloc complicit in making Canada the only country in the democratic world to engage in this form of user content regulation and a return to the Senate for a final review. But regardless of the upcoming legislative steps, the government has left no doubt about its position. On its way to rejecting the concerns of thousands of Canadian creators and dismissing the fears of authors such as Margaret Atwood and Senator David Adams Richards, its real mantra is platforms are in and user content regulation is in.