CRTC Chairman Ian Scott says the CRTC can handle the task of implementing the Liberal government’s controversial online streaming legislation, including safeguarding freedom of expression.
Speaking at Ryerson University in Toronto, Scott shrugged off critics’ concerns about giving the broadcast and telecom regulator the responsibility of figuring out how to put Bill C-11 into practice.
“Users of online and social media services expect freedom of expression, and they will continue to enjoy this under the new Broadcasting Act,” Scott said in the speech Friday, according to a transcript made available by the CRTC Monday.
“Put another way, the CRTC issues about 250 broadcasting decisions annually. Not a single one has ever been successfully challenged on the basis that it somehow infringed Canadians’ freedom of expression.”
Bill C-11 is the government’s second attempt to update the Broadcasting Act, with the aim of setting up the CRTC to regulate online streaming companies such as Netflix the way it does traditional broadcasters. The previous version, Bill C-10, died on the order paper when the federal election was called. It drew outrage after the government removed an exemption for user-generated content, putting Canadians’ social media posts under the CRTC’s regulatory authority.
When Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez re-introduced it as Bill C-11, that provision was back in — but critics pointed to additional exemptions to that exemption that they say still give the CRTC too much power to interpret and implement the legislation.
Scott argued that it makes sense to give the CRTC that kind of leeway, instead of being specific in legislation that might be outdated well before the government gets a chance to update it. He noted the Broadcast Act is 30 years old.
“Some have warned that the bill, in its current form, leaves too much up to the CRTC to figure out,” such as how to define an online broadcaster, or content that makes a “meaningful contribution” to Canadian culture, Scott said.
The danger with being too specific in the legislation is that it becomes a static document once passed, he said. “As we have seen, it can take several decades before Parliament has an opportunity to review legislation, and in the meantime circumstances on the ground can shift significantly.”
In contrast, a regulator “can move quickly to update its regulatory policies” by launching a public proceeding and then issuing a decision.
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Scott said it’s “clear to us that the bill’s intent is to exclude individual users from regulation.”
Others have expressed concerns that Bill C-11 could affect digital creators. Industry group Digital First Canada told the government in an open letter in late March that the language of the bill doesn’t match Rodriguez’s promise that digital creators would be excluded.
“As currently drafted, the bill will still allow the CRTC to regulate the content of digital creators, and control how platforms show content to Canadians,” the group said. “Bill C-11 hands the CRTC sweeping new authority, including the power to regulate ‘professional’ social media content — which is defined so broadly that it could include all content posted by Canadians to their favourite platforms.”
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In his speech, Scott said it’s not the CRTC’s “intention to do anything that would harm, restrict or impede” digital creators’ “ability to create and share their content.”
“We understand that Canadian digital-first creators are innovators who have leveraged their creativity and the freedom of the internet to garner audiences and followers, many of whom are located outside of Canada,” he said.
Scott also addressed some of the criticisms around the CRTC’s ability to implement Bill C-11. Those worries have also been raised about a separate bill from the Liberal government — expected to be introduced as early as Tuesday — that will force Google and Facebook to share revenues with news publishers. A number of stakeholders expect the CRTC could also be the regulator implementing that legislation, the National Post has reported.
“People are asking whether we have the expertise needed to regulate online streaming in Canada,” Scott acknowledged. He responded that the CRTC “has a long history and a strong track record of implementing effective policies and adapting its approaches over time to meet the evolving needs of Canadians and of the broadcasting system.”
He said the CRTC has always strived to keep a “light-handed approach to regulation,” noting that the commission has for years chosen not to regulate online platforms, only monitor their effects on the Canadian broadcasting system.
Scott said the CRTC would follow the same approach it always has to policymaking, holding public consultations to gather evidence. “We will need everyone’s help to design the new regulatory framework that will be needed to implement Bill C-11,” he said, “because we cannot simply apply our traditional approaches to regulation to the online world.”