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Vass Bednar: What problem is Bill C-10 trying to solve anyway?

Commentary

While it is clear there is widespread opposition to Bill C-10, it is not clear what “problem” the bill is determined to solve. Is it: 

  • Financial: that traditional media groups or Canadian content creators need more financial support from the government?
  • Algorithmic: that the TikTok algorithm doesn’t show enough French videos?
  • Viewership: that not enough people watch Canadian-produced shows on Netflix?
  • Quality: that better material needs to be generated by content creators on YouTube?
  • Something else? 

The legislation will require online services to promote and contribute further to the creation of Canadian content, while also requiring online platforms to enhance their existing financial support of Canadian content in areas such as television, film, and music. The bill will be enforced through administrative monetary penalties.

In a recent update to the proposed legislation, a social media exemption was removed — making it a totally different bill with new implications. What started as an economics bill aimed at “leveling the playing field” between Netflix and traditional broadcasters has quickly become a wedge issue on freedom of expression. 

The legislation feels like an experiment in platform accountability — a trial balloon ahead of other initiatives like the Digital Services Tax (DST) and the pending Online Harms Bill. Given Bill C-10’s hasty evolution and hazy details, I worry that the government is seriously risking its credibility and ability to regulate online platforms in a way that is satisfying and compelling for consumers. The Logic’s Martin Patriquin has written that “Bill C-10 shows Quebec’s influence over how the federal Liberals think about Big Tech,” and I agree with him.

In pandering to Quebec cultural elites,  the federal Liberals are delegitimizing broader technology regulation goals. The witness list for C-10 is dominated by French interest groups, and Quebec tends to drive cultural policy in Canada. Further, this legislation seems like a core source of Liberal support in the province (why else would Steven Guilbeault be the Minister of Canadian Heritage?).

The plan to shove social media platforms under the Broadcasting Act has been widely panned: with columnist Andrew Coyne opining that the “bill represents one of the most radical extensions of state regulation in Canadian history,” Michael Geist charging that the Liberals are, “the most anti-internet government in Canadian history,” and OpenMedia, a non-profit that works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free, alleging that this is “the most serious attack of freedom of expression online” they’ve seen in years.

Two weeks ago, the minister struggled to answer basic questions about the bill on “Power & Politics,” in what was described as a “disaster” interview. 

What started as an economics bill is quickly becoming a wedge issue on freedom of expression. 

While the CRTC is a familiar policy actor, this legislation ignores the differences between traditional broadcasting and “online broadcasting”, which are stark. The latter is not subject to the gatekeeping of radio waves or television channels. The barrier to entry is far lower and the spaces are messier and comparatively more democractic.

This legislation discounts consumer preferences for what they consume, and may mandate that digital platforms showcase as much as 30% of Canadian material, mirroring the current rule for radio. Minister Guilbeault and the bill’s supporters have gone to great pains to point out that the bill will not regulate individual users, only platforms, and therefore will not infringe on Canadians’ freedom of expression. However, if social media platforms are required to meet quotas for the percentage of CRTC-approved “Social Media CanCon” that users see in their feeds, then it’s implicit that platforms will have to essentially suppress other posts that a user would otherwise normally see based on who they follow or their personal interests.

The draw of social media platforms — for better or worse — has been the algorithmic curation that personalizes your feed to your unique network, passions, and interests. Here, the government has declared that when a platform curates content (which, if defined to include algorithmic curation will include all platforms), the CRTC will have a say in what posts Canadians can see on these platforms. 

And to reiterate, this has nothing to do with illegal or harmful content, which Minister Guilbeault has promised to address in separate legislation.  This mandate will apply to all content posted on platforms: articles posted on Twitter, family photos on Facebook, and silly skits on TikTok.  

The mere existence of “cultural” material on platforms like YouTube, TikTok, or Spotify does little to guarantee their consumption. Further, it is unclear what “Canadian” content will be designated in a digital context: is it IP address?

If the core goal is indeed to facilitate more Canadian content, then legislators should consider that these social media platforms may have their own ideas about how they can invest in amplifying Canada’s cultural identity, like TikTok’s Creator Fund program in the U.S

By subjecting social media networks to CRTC regulation when they “act like a broadcaster,” the government may actually be discouraging these well-funded, global platforms from investing in Canada to pay creators for their content, from partnering with Canadian media organizations to take their content global, or featuring Canadian artists and musicians in global programming.

A divide between the organizations that fund and facilitate CanCon and cutting-edge content creators also persists. Content creators under 30 are by and large creating content for TikTok and YouTube, however,  the Canada Media Fund, the primary financial beneficiary of C-10, does not support this type of independent content creation. It is also unclear whether the federal government consulted with online creators, or intends to establish any programs to support, finance, and train young, digital-native creators. 

Seeking to characterize digital platforms as broadcasters should also recognize the values of these platforms. Canadian superstars like Justin Beiber, Lily Singh, and Shawn Mendes all started out supported by devoted online communities on YouTube, and TikTok stars like Boman Martinez-Reid (“bomanizer”), James Jones (“Notorious Cree”), and Kris Collins (“Kallmekris”) enjoy similar followings.

Let’s not forget that you can’t get a Peloton shipped to you in Quebec because the company hasn’t invested in translating its on-demand video library to French with subtitles. That means that Peloton is a digital broadcasting platform that lacks Canadian content, both French and Indigenous.

Perhaps the government should consider ways it can incentivize and subsidize investments in Canadian material on popular platforms so that people in Quebec can spin indoors instead of spinning their wheels on foolish, mis-targeted policy interventions. 

Blair Gibbs: Voters give the benefit of the doubt on COVID-19 — up to a point

Commentary

It will be years before the personal pain and emotional experiences of this pandemic make way for a dispassionate assessment of what was done well and which countries had the best response.

Polling suggests the public will give governments the benefit of the doubt for once-in-a-century pandemics, making them non-political events. But only until it becomes clear your country is not keeping up.

The slow roll-out of vaccines contributing to today’s awful third wave of COVID-19 infections is now dominating Canada’s political debate. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government could soon be experiencing the reverse scenario to the Conservatives in Britain, who endured widespread criticism at the outset, only to be lauded a year later for the best vaccine roll-out of any major country.

Two areas will reverberate down the years as Canadians try to make sense of their government’s record. Firstly, to what extent the country’s lack of domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity left it woefully ill-equipped for the pandemic and for quickly deploying the most effective tools to allow the economy to reopen sooner.

Secondly, whether the support schemes did their job and if the fiscal impact — and the cratering of the public finances — could have been a different story if government spending had not already been so high.

On the first question, if more onshoring is deemed necessary in a world where globalised supply chains seize up in a crisis, then it should not be allowed to become a partisan issue because these capabilities have to be developed over decades.

Unlike the human impact in lives lost, the raw fiscal cost of this pandemic is tangible.

The recent federal budget boosts life sciences spending by $2.2 billion over seven years, including allocating $59.2 million over three years for bio-manufacturing of vaccines, and calls domestic vaccine capacity “essential to our national security.” A striking statement that by implication means it took a global pandemic for the federal government to recognise a key element of its national security was not really optional. These are the industrial foundations that the U.K., France and even smaller nations like Australia have invested in for years, but this needs bipartisan commitment and something akin to a modern industrial strategy.

The second question is more difficult, because every country has taken a massive fiscal hit and the policies used to fund the furlough schemes and keep businesses afloat were adopted in haste and will be evaluated at leisure. Few dispute that schemes like CERB, or something like it, were needed. The stimulus spending made the lockdowns tolerable, and the lockdowns — to a degree that is still contested — contributed to slowing the virus’s spread and saving lives. But was it enough? And if it wasn’t, what else might Canada have done that it could have realistically afforded in 2020?

Unlike the human impact in lives lost, the raw fiscal cost of this pandemic is tangible and if the price to pay for tackling it was national debt at World War II levels, and increased taxes for perhaps a decade or more to come, it is important to know if the fiscal response worked. Did it save businesses from going under or just forestall it by a few months?

One way to gauge how this pandemic has affected businesses is to ask them. The consultancy I work for, Public First, surveyed companies in Canada to understand how they had been affected and what they thought about the government’s response. In a representative national survey of businesses conducted earlier this month, a majority (59 percent) of businesses report their revenues have declined compared to 2019, against just a fifth (19 percent) who say they have stayed the same. The impact seems to have been worse on smaller businesses, with a quarter of firms employing fewer than 10 people saying their income is down by more than half and almost a third of sole proprietors saying their income has declined by over 50 percent.

There is a lucky minority of businesses who say their revenue has grown since the same period in 2019, but these are more likely to be larger companies. In a hint to the long-term legacy of what the pandemic has done to customer behaviour, almost 1 in 6 businesses said “the COVID-19 pandemic caused my firm to lose customers and become unprofitable.” Again, this is a statement that more smaller companies agreed with.

Given these results, it is not surprising that businesses generally think the government has not done enough. When respondents were asked about the government’s handling of the pandemic a nuanced picture emerges.

A majority of businesses supported the early action to close the borders and there was general support for the idea that provinces were left to decide too much and the federal government should have played a bigger role. However, respondents split 46 to 18 in support of the statement “the Canadian government prioritised making emergency payments to individuals at the expense of direct support for businesses” (with 35 percent neither agreeing or disagreeing) which might suggest that there is underlying resentment among business owners.

The vaccine failure seems to have been noticed. By 64 percent to 12 percent Canadian businesses agreed that “the Canadian government was not fast enough in securing shipments of COVID-19 vaccines and has taken too long to approve vaccines for use.”

And in a question that could have delivered a much more impressive result last year, 43 percent agreed that “the Canadian government handled the pandemic far more successfully than other countries” (with 30 percent disagreeing).

In a possible sign of Canada’s deep-seated reasonableness, 60 percent of businesses surveyed agreed that “the Canadian government was not well prepared for the pandemic but did an OK job in the circumstances.” This is the benefit of the doubt that may end up saving the current government from major political blowback, although vaccine progress in next few months will decide whether that last question will deliver a radically different result by the fall.

As the federal budget unveils a raft of new support schemes for employees and businesses, this poll gives a sense of the pandemic’s impact on the “real” economy and it is clear that businesses have been hugely impacted already and many of them feel let down. It is also striking that despite the generous taxpayer support provided by provincial and federal governments since last spring, the lockdowns were more than many Canadian businesses could weather, and for plenty of companies they have already drowned. Each of these failed businesses is a human story of a lost dream, of life savings being wiped out and new opportunities lost, and it will have an electoral impact eventually.

There may be another federal election before it becomes clear how the pandemic has materially affected businesses, and how much the support schemes have cushioned ordinary voters. But we do know there are hundreds of thousands of people who will never recover economically from COVID-19, even if they avoided contracting the virus themselves.