Canada

Heritage committee votes in favour of proposed opposition amendment to controversial Bill C-10

A further proposal by the Conservatives, which would alleviate free speech concerns, did not come to a vote and will be dealt with by MPs at a future meeting

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Opposition parties proposed compromise amendments to the controversial broadcasting bill C-10 Wednesday in an attempt to address concerns about the bill’s impact on free expression.

The Heritage committee voted in favour of one those motions, though critics said that amendment doesn’t address their worries about free speech. But a further proposal by the Conservatives, which would alleviate those concerns, did not come to a vote and will be dealt with by MPs at a future meeting.

The committee unanimously voted in favour of a Bloc Québécois motion to require the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to apply its power over social media content – currently limited in the bill to the promotion of content by Canadian creators – in a manner consistent with the Charter right to freedom of expression.

But critics have been arguing that it’s the CRTC having that power over social media content that is the problem in the first place. Giving the broadcast regulator control over what content is prioritized or de-prioritized is a freedom of expression issue, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist told the same committee earlier in the week.

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The amendment passed by the committee Wednesday “doesn’t address the issue at all,” Geist said. “The concern is the scope of the CRTC’s power, not whether they will follow free speech principles.”

Concerns over the bill began in April, when the Liberal government put forward an amendment that removed a section of the bill that exempted user-generated content from CRTC regulation. Critics said that amounted to an attack on free expression because it would put the social media content posted by Canadians under the regulatory authority of the CRTC.

The government then proposed a further amendment, which would limit the CRTC’s powers over content posted to social media to discoverability, or the promotion of content from Canadian creators.

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The Heritage committee is currently in the process of amending the bill clause-by-clause, with more than 100 amendments to the legislation proposed by various parties. That process was put on hold due to controversy over the bill’s implications for free expression, with opposition parties demanding the justice minister review whether the bill, as amended, complies with charter rights.

The Department of Justice then concluded that it does, and both the heritage and justice ministers appeared at the committee to defend the bill. Wednesday’s meeting was the first in which the committee went back to the clause-by-clause amendments, with all three opposition parties indicating they want to reach some sort of compromise.

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Conservative MPs voted in favour of the Bloc motion, but Tory Heritage critic Alain Rayes then proposed a further amendment of his own, which would specify that C-10 does not apply to user-generated content. The amendment replicates the wording that was taken out by the government in April and would essentially bring back that section.

It’s unlikely to find support from the Liberal MPs.

Parliamentary Secretary Julie Dabrusin said in an emailed statement the Conservative amendment is “effectively a reintroduction of a waiver that the committee has already rejected. We invite all parties to collaborate with us to ensure that web giants pay their fair share.”

The NDP didn’t put forward a motion, but a spokesperson said the party is “looking for a solution” that would ensure a level playing field for Canadian companies with big global digital players, which would also protect freedom of expression and net neutrality.

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The intent behind Bill C-10 is to ensure the CRTC can place the same rules around Canadian content on digital platforms as it has in place for traditional broadcasters, including forcing streaming companies like Netflix to pay into the CanCon system. The bill’s supporters, which include a broad coalition of cultural industries including music and TV and film production, have argued it’s crucial for the sector, which has been hard-hit by COVID-19.

Whether the various parties will be able to find a compromise that they feel achieves both objectives will determine how fast the bill completes the clause-by-clause process and goes to back to the House of Commons. The government and the bill’s supporters have argued that must happen before Parliament goes on summer break in June.

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One option would be to keep the CRTC’s powers over social media platforms regarding CanCon contributions and the ability to require platforms to provide information to the regulator, but to eliminate its authority over content.

That would mean eliminating the CRTC’s power to mandate discoverability of Canadian posts, but keeping its ability to force platforms like YouTube to give the Canadian cultural industry the funding it has been asking for.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault told the committee Friday that the government removed the exemption for user-generated content because it couldn’t justify imposing obligations on companies like Spotify and Apple music but not YouTube. He said if the government moves forward with the bill, by 2023 online broadcasters could contribute up to $830 million per year to Canadian content and creators.

Cara Zwibel, the director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said an option that keeps the financial contributions but removes the CRTC’s powers over discoverability would satisfy the CCLA.

She said if there were a way to take out the piece of the bill that deals with regulation of user-generated content and discoverability, “that would address the main concerns around freedom of expression.”

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