Bill C-11, recognized as the Online Streaming Act, was passed as legislation into Canadian federal law through royal assent on April 27, 2023, championed by the Liberal government. Former Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriquez spearheaded this controversial bill aimed at safeguarding an “equitable” environment for Canadian online content creators. 

The legislation has drawn heavy criticism from the public and free speech groups (not to mention YouTube itself), primarily due to the provisions about the oversight of online platform recommendation algorithms, such as those on YouTube’s homepage, aimed at enhancing the visibility of “Canadian content.”

The chorus of dissent has put forth two primary concerns. The first revolves around the delicate situation regarding online freedom of speech in Canada. The second concerns COVID-19-related anxieties about tech industry censorship magnifying the government’s new role in curating recommended content. 

Moreover, the very definition of “Canadian” is a politically ambiguous term, given Canada’s struggles over the ideas of diversity and multiculturalism. Therefore, unraveling the multifaceted essence of “Canadian content” appears to extend beyond the nationality of content creators, incorporating the essence of the content itself. This aspect opens the door to potential censorship — including censoring critiques of government materials — and the promotion of state-driven agendas. 

From the federal government’s perspective, Bill C-11 heralds a fresh avenue for regulation and control. It is a mechanism for both reprimanding adversaries and rewarding steadfast lobbyists such as Bell and Rogers Media, two Canadian media companies whose broadcast divisions are suffering, given the exponential growth of social media-delivered content. 

(See also: this article about Bill C-18, which aims to censor all news outlets on social media platforms unless their companies offer compensation to Canadian news outlets for the news they provide.)

These two prominent players hold sway in the realm of in-home internet, TV, and mobile services, constituting a near duopoly in the nation. The government’s endorsement of these tech giants inadvertently hampers competition, overshadowing the prospects of smaller contenders. This stance counters market dynamics, as recent trends signal a decline in traditional media viewership.

To learn about the legal issues surrounding similar legislation in the U.S., see:

The urgency surrounding Bill C-11 comes from the gradual erosion of trust in traditional media among both the Anglophone and Francophone populations. The 2022 digital news report from the Reuters Institute, an authoritative study from the University of Oxford’s Journalism division, paints a grim picture: a 13 percent decline in trust since 2016. With a mere 42 percent of surveyed Canadians expressing faith in mainstream news sources, the legislation’s potential to stifle media competition contradicts prevailing sentiment and thwarts the expansion of alternative media. 

The widespread opposition encountered by Bill C-11 underscores its contentious nature. In the prior 43rd Parliamentary session, a similar bill, Bill C-10, met its downfall through a House of Commons vote, illustrating the strong currents of opposition. But the political interplay between the minority Liberal government and their NDP (New Democratic Party of Canada) allies has manipulated votes, enabling the new bill’s passage despite public reservations. 

Critics call the legislation the “online censorship act” and point out that the government’s defense of the bill has been misleading. The proposed role assigned to the existing media regulator, the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), in facilitating the discoverability of government-endorsed content, raises concerns about establishing an intellectually compromised criterion. Platforms such as YouTube could face a legal obligation to comply, as stated by J.J McCullough, a prominent Canadian YouTuber who cautioned against the bill during a parliamentary hearing. 

With an eye toward the imminent political landscape, a potential Conservative government must commit to repealing Bill C-11, or even contemplate legal mechanisms that preempt such legislation in the future. 

The vitality of the public domain is intrinsically linked to its media space, a realm that thrives when exposed to diverse influences. But if that domain succumbs to the dominance of government-sanctioned or subsidized media, the very essence of freedom wanes, casting a shadow over the aspirations of free-thinking Canadian citizens.

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