Bill C-11’s forced promotion of CanCon on online platforms is ‘very risky’, MPs say

Critics say pushing content to uninterested viewers will actually hurt its creators, as algorithms penalize content that viewers don’t interact with

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The Liberal government’s online distribution law aims to increase the visibility of Canadian content on digital platforms, but the legislation could backfire and hurt Canadian creators, MPs heard on Tuesday.

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“Bill C-11 is not ill-intentioned legislation, but it is bad legislation. It was written by those who do not understand the industry they are trying to regulate,” Morghan Fortier, CEO of Skyship Entertainment, told the House of Commons Heritage Committee.

“He doesn’t understand how the platforms work.”

One of the goals of the legislation is to mandate the “discoverability” of Canadian content by requiring the CRTC to require platforms to promote Canadian content. Critics have argued that pushing content to uninterested viewers will actually harm its creators, as the algorithms will penalize content that viewers don’t interact with.

Fortier said the creators’ focus is global. “We’re the most-watched channel in Canada, but Canada represents 3% of our overall revenue, and that’s not down to anything other than sheer population size,” she explained. “So for these platforms to actually work successfully, global discoverability is key for a lot of these content creators.”

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Matt Hatfield, campaign manager for advocacy group OpenMedia, told the committee that such promotional requirements should be optional for users who want them.

“We will never tolerate the government making rules specifying which books should be placed in front of our bookstores, but that is exactly what the discovery provision … of C-11 currently does,” he said.

“To manipulate our search results and feeds to present government-preferred content in place of other content is crass paternalism that does not belong in a democratic society.”

Irene Berkowitz, senior policy researcher at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Audience Lab, pointed out that on YouTube alone, 500 hours of content are uploaded every minute.

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“YouTube knows what is downloaded in Canada. He just doesn’t know if the uploaders are Canadian or their team. They don’t know if Canadians are downloading from any other place on earth, say a Buffalo Airbnb or a VPN,” she said.

Berkowitz argued that “pushing the new into the old instantly becomes absurd”.

She said Canadians are already doing well on YouTube, with Canadians being the “number one exporter across the entire platform.”

Hatfield said that not enough consideration has been given to what Canadians actually want from their online services, and what they don’t want is a quota imposed on what they see when they go online. If they go on a platform to watch cat videos, they don’t want a requirement that 30% of those cats must be Canadian, Hatfield argued.

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“I think people have an interest in making sure there is support available for the production of Canadian culture, but they don’t want it to be imposed on them. They don’t want this forced into all of their search results” or feeds.

Hatfield pointed out that the discoverability provisions could set a precedent that will hurt Canadian creators if other countries follow suit.

“I think we need to look at not just what will happen to Canadian creators under this bill, but what will happen to their non-Canadian audiences,” he said.

“It’s very risky actually for a small country like Canada to encourage this kind of model of prioritizing its own content. The benefits are pretty slim if we make it work for our local content, and the risk, if a bigger country like France were to do the same thing, is huge for us.

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Bill C-11 is the government’s second attempt to update the Broadcasting Act and create the CRTC to regulate streaming platforms. The previous version, Bill C-10, died on the order paper last year over fears it would bring user-generated content under the CRTC’s jurisdiction.

When Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez introduced C-11, he said the government had “resolved” those concerns, but critics have since said the way the bill was worded meant that content generated by users was actually included.

Fortier pointed to testimony by CRTC Chairman Ian Scott before the same committee last week, who was asked whether the bill indeed applied to user-generated content. Scott told MPs ‘as built there is a provision that would allow us to do this if required.’ The government has argued that the intention of the bill is not to regulate user content, while Scott said last week that the CRTC would not do so even if the law gave it that power.

“If it’s really not meant to be in the bill, then it just needs to be taken out,” Fortier said. “If you do not remove this article, you are asking Canadians to trust you, not to abuse this far-reaching law and that future governments will not abuse it either.

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