Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is set to introduce his “Get Money from Web Giants” Internet regulation bill on Monday (update: the bill is on the notice paper, but may be delayed until Tuesday). Based on his previous public comments, the bill is expected to grant the CRTC extensive new powers to regulate Internet-based video streaming services. In particular, expect the government to mandate payments to support Canadian content production for the streaming services and establish new “discoverability” requirements that will require online services to override user preferences by promoting Canadian content. The government is likely to issue a policy direction to the CRTC that identifies its specific priorities, but the much-discussed link licensing requirement for social media companies that Guilbeault has supported will not be part of this legislative package.
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Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault’s “Get Money from Web Giants” Internet Regulation Bill: An Unauthorized Backgrounder
Last week, I wrote about the need for the Canadian government to reboot its digital agenda, arguing that less than 12 months after the 2019 national election, the policy agenda had gone off the rails with a reversal on affordable telecom services, delays in broadband support and privacy reform, as well as plans for extensive online regulation. The Speech from the Throne, which sets out the government’s agenda, suggests that rather than rebooting the digital agenda, the government has largely deleted it altogether.
The speech was the longest throne speech since the Liberal election in 2015, yet there was apparently no time to reference privacy reform, intellectual property, wireless, or innovation (innovative appears once). Instead, beyond catching up on unfulfilled promises on rural broadband and promising action on online hate, the government’s digital agenda is – as Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said last week – now distilled primarily down to “get money from web giants.” That isn’t a digital agenda, it’s anti-digital agenda, with technology companies cast as both a foreign enemy to be regulated and an ATM for free cash to fund pet projects in the cultural sector.
“Get Money From Web Giants”: Why Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault’s Top Legislative Priority is Risky Business
As Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault prepares an Internet regulation plan that features the prospect of licences for linking, undermining net neutrality, and trade sanctions, he has typically argued that “it’s about fairness”, suggesting that foreign companies unfairly benefit from the Canadian market at the expense of domestic companies. Yet when Guilbeault appeared at a production sector town hall last week, he was far more candid. Guilbeault told the sector that in a minority government situation, his department had to choose between a massive bill changing “everything under the sun” or to slice it up into smaller pieces. Having chosen the piecemeal approach, Guilbeault pointed to his top priority: get money from the foreign Internet companies (his exact words at 47:58 were “the most pressing thing we needed to do was to get oxygen into the system, which is money. And go and get that money where that money is. Which is web giants.”)
Weakening Net Neutrality: How the Government’s Internet Regulation Plan Abandons the Principle of Equal Treatment of Content Online
Net neutrality has long stood as a foundational Internet policy principle for the current Liberal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has regularly spoken in support of net neutrality, describing it as “essential to keep the freedom associated with the Internet alive” and claiming that he would defend net neutrality even as the U.S. backtracked by repealing net neutrality regulations:
“The idea of throttling certain sites or charging extra for certain services just does not make sense and if we’re going to continue to ensure that … digital technology and use of the internet is the lever to create economic growth and opportunities for citizens right across this country, we need to continue to defend net neutrality and I will.”
The government’s support for net neutrality has been signalled in many ways: it passed a resolution in support of net neutrality; Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains affirmed “we support an open Internet where Canadians have the ability to access the content of their choice in accordance with Canadian laws”; and former Heritage Minister Melanie Joly used her speech on Canadian digital cultural policy in 2017 to note that “we stand by the principle of net neutrality.”
Yet Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is promising a series of reforms that will undermine a core principle of net neutrality and Bains is seemingly content to remain silent.
No Policies on Real Issues and Harmful Policies on Non-Issues: How the Government Bungled the Internet Regulation File
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault participated in an online town hall with the music sector yesterday. When participants raised the prospect of relaxing social distancing rules to one metre in order to support live music shows, Guilbeault rightly noted that he was unable to help as the issue was outside his jurisdiction. Instead, he volunteered that his government would be supporting the industry through digital taxes, CRTC regulation, and mandated Cancon requirements. The response was typical of the government’s approach on cultural issues. The film and television sector, has asked for government support in the form of COVID-19 insurance to help get productions off the ground, but the government has not acted, instead pointing to Internet regulation. The news sector wants the millions in support the government promised months ago, but instead it gets promises of Internet regulation.
As industry identifies the policy measures that would help get their sectors restarted, Guilbeault has emerged as the leading government voice for Internet regulation as the alternative solution. The approach represents a terrible bungling of the Internet regulation file dating back years, with the government now posed to adopted harmful policies on non-issues and largely leave the real Internet policy concerns untouched. The plan – which Guilbeault has spelled out in multiple media interviews (and for which Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains has remained puzzlingly silent) – involves new digital sales taxes, massive new powers for the CRTC to regulate payments from online services and mandate Cancon contributions, and new requirements for Internet platforms to pay licensing fees for links to news articles.