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.
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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.”)
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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.
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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.
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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault continued his media tour in support of link taxes and Internet content regulation yesterday with interviews in the Toronto Star and Radio-Canada. The Toronto Star compares technology companies to polluters, doubles down on calling social media linking to news articles without a licence “immoral”, questions why Facebook has said it will stop news sharing in Australia with mandated licensing (“I’m like, really guys”), and raises the possibility of using copyright to require payments for linking. In the Radio-Canada interview, he admits that Netflix already invests in Canada (CRTC chair Ian Scott says it is the biggest single contributor to film and television production in Canada) but that he wants regulation to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to support francophone, native, and minority community productions.
I’ve written extensively on why the claim that linking without a licence is immoral is wrong, why Facebook is right to push back against link licensing, and how Canadian film and television production is enjoying record success because of international streaming services, not in spite of them. But there is one line in the Radio-Canada that particularly caught my attention. When asked about the timing of a bill to mandate online Cancon, Guilbeault acknowledges that “obviously I am not the only minister [responsible] for the bill.”
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