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Canadian streaming law raises censorship fears

The measure applies broadcast regulations to online platforms

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez during a news conference in October, 2021 Getty Images/Photo by David Kawai/Bloomberg

Canadian streaming law raises censorship fears

When Canada last revised its law governing broadcasting, the internet was in its infancy and YouTube, Netflix, Disney+, and other online streaming services did not exist.

Last month, Canada adopted the Online Streaming Act, bringing online content providers operating in the country under the same regulatory framework as traditional broadcast media like TV and radio. The law raises concerns about government control of content, including that of religious broadcasters.

The existing legislation overseeing the nation’s media, the Canadian Broadcasting Act, was created to “safeguard, enrich and strengthen Canada’s cultural, political, social and economic fabric.” Last updated in 1991, it mandates the production and airing of a certain amount of Canadian-made content on TV and radio.

The Online Streaming Act amends that law. Changes proposed in November 2020 by then–Minister of Canadian Heritage Steve Guilbeault faced opposition. A new minister, Pablo Rodriguez, reintroduced similar changes In February 2022.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is an independent administrative tribunal that regulates and supervises broadcasting and telecommunications within Canada. The CRTC reports to the Canadian government through the minister of Canadian Heritage. “With this legislation, we are ensuring that Canada’s incredible talent has a bigger and brighter stage online,” Rodriguez said after the bill passed.

The amended law creates a new category of broadcasts known as “online undertakings,” stating specific requirements for platforms that publish programs online, including social media companies. Platforms must ensure viewers can easily find Canadian content. This involves incorporating a mandatory quota of official “CanCon” content into search results and feeds.

The legislation gives the CRTC new and expanded powers, including the ability to impose financial penalties for entities that violate parts of the act. Under the bill, programming made in Canada must consider “diversity,” including Canadians of varying racial and ethnocultural backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, ages, and reflections of Indigenous culture.

YouTube Canada campaigned against the bill by teaming up with content creators. They stated the legislation could determine how content appears on the platform, affecting how it reaches global audiences. Over many legislative hearings, the Conservative Party called for the repeal of the bill, labeling it after the Liberal Party as the “Liberal censorship law.”

“It gives the power to a woke agency, the CRTC, named by Liberals to manipulate social media algorithms to shut down voices it does not want people to hear. When will this government realize that Orwell’s 1984 was not an instruction manual?” said Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre during a parliamentary question period.

Open Media is a nonpartisan advocacy organization that aims to educate users worldwide to keep the internet open, affordable, and free from surveillance. Over the past year, the group has been campaigning against the Online Streaming Act. Rosa Addario, Open Media’s communication manager, said the bill’s language would not protect user-generated content.

“The language of the bill does not distinguish between professional or amateur sound recordings and that means the content of everyday people in Canada, as well as Canadian content creators may fall under the legislation of the agency,” said Addario.

Over the next year, CRTC commissioners will consult with the public through hearings and begin the process of interpreting how they will regulate under the bill.

Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and former vice chair of the CRTC. Menzies says that, unlike TV and radio broadcasts, the government has no inherent claim on the internet.

“The tricky part is that the internet isn’t a crown asset. It’s a privately built communications network that is completely different than over the years,” said Menzies.

The law’s use of terms like “gender identities” has sparked inquiries about the extent to which the government is willing to regulate the content created by faith-based groups or any other entities with which it has differing opinions. Menzies said that in the past, CRTC used the Broadcasting Act to refuse licenses for single-faith religious broadcasters. Once the CRTC began licensing pornography, it started licensing religious broadcasters with tight restrictions. In 1998, the Christian Crossroads Television System received a license with a mandate to offer “balanced” or “multi-faith” programming on a variety of topics for 20 hours every week. Per the license conditions, at least 12 hours had to be broadcast between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.

“They went ahead and licensed religious channels, but with the caveat that they had to dedicate a certain number of hours a week to other religions,” Menzies said. “If you want to have a broadcaster in Canada that says ‘Jesus saves you,’ you have to run a couple of hours a week that says, ‘No, he doesn’t.’ This is incorrect.”

Menzies says that the CRTC’s track record should concern people from all faith backgrounds.

“It’s fair for people from religious organizations to be concerned from not just Christian organizations, but other organizations to people of all faiths and backgrounds,” he said. “We probably should be concerned because these have been contentious matters throughout our history.”

Alexandra Ellison

Alexandra Ellison is a graduate of World Journalism Institute.


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