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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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault appeared on The West Block over the weekend in an interview that provides a strong – and disturbing – sense of where the government is headed on Internet regulation. Most problematic was the discussion on compensation from social media companies such as Facebook to news organizations for allowing their users to link to news articles. As I discussed in a post last week examining recent developments in Australia:
Facebook users post many things – photos, videos, personal updates, and links to various content online, including news articles. Those news articles do not appear in full. Rather, they are merely links that send users to the original news site. From Facebook’s perspective, there is enormous value in referring users to media sites, who benefit from advertising revenue from the visits.
Facebook has said that it will block all news sharing on its platform in Australia if the government proceeds with a mandated payment system, noting the limited value of the links and arguing that its referrals that are worth hundreds of millions to the news organizations. If Canada were to pursue the same strategy, Canadian news sites would also likely be blocked and a trade complaint under the USMCA would be a virtual certainty.
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Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it plans to stop allowing publishers and users to share news on both Facebook and Instagram in Australia. The decision came after months of public debate and private negotiations on potential payments from the social media giant to news organizations. When the Internet platforms and the news organizations led by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (by the far the largest media organization in Australia) were unable to arrive at a deal, the Australian government and its regulator announced that it would legislate a solution by requiring Google and Facebook to pay publishers for content posted by its users on its site. The Facebook decision to block news sharing on its platforms has been described as a “threat” to the government and democracy, leading to supportive op-eds calling on the Australian government to push back against the company. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has denounced the move, stating “the Canadian government stands with our Australian partners and denounces any form of threats.”
There are many serious concerns about Facebook: it is in federal court in a battle over whether it violated Canadian privacy law, its response to potentially misleading political advertising has been inadequate, it has moved too slowly in removing posts that urge violence, it faces antitrust investigations, it has paid billions in penalties for its conduct, and many simply fear it is too powerful. But it is in the right in this battle over news in Australia and the Canadian government would be wrong to emulate the Australian approach.
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