Canada’s New Online Streaming Act Will Control What You See

Canada Parliment passed Act C-11 at the end of April 2023. Act C-11 aims to promote local content and state-funded media by heavily regulating online content, particularly streaming services. 

 The current Broadcasting Act already requires that Canadian radio and television networks promote local content, but Act C-11 adds platforms owned by foreign tech giants to that list. This includes streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and Spotify. The Act forces these and other streaming platforms to invest in and prioritize Canadian content.

Some welcome the Act, while others feel C-11 gives the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) the ability to regulate the content Canadians are allowed to see online. 

What is the C-11 Online Streaming Act

Cultural regulation has been a divisive topic among Canadians for a long time. One of C-11’s biggest opponents, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, vowed to repeal the Act on the grounds that it’s a “censorship law.” According to Poilievre, the Act will curb freedom of expression on the internet and give the government the power to manipulate algorithms according to its will.

What will change is that instead of having algorithms that give people things they want to see, there will be algorithms that give people the things that government wants them to see,

Poilievre said.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez, who introduced the bill, instead argues this protects local artists and uses economic justification for the Act. The idea is simple: international companies providing online entertainment are making a lot of money off Canadians, so they should be investing in locally-created content to make up for it. While it’s a nice thought, the unfortunate reality is this might lead to more bad than good. 

The Act itself was bound to happen in some form or another. Canada’s Broadcasting Act was cemented in 1991 and hasn’t been amended once, until now. When streaming services like Netflix and YouTube started becoming popular 10 years ago, local broadcasting had already been toeing the line of the law for over 20 years. Their international competitors weren’t subject to the Broadcasting Act thanks to the new-media exemption introduced in 1999.

In those years it led to some division as local broadcasters questioned whether they should still be subjected to these laws if others aren’t. Eventually, this led to the introduction of Bill C-10 which was shut down until Rodriguez decided to resurrect it in the form of Bill C-11. Whereas many others had failed, he managed to get this Bill passed in parliament and change the Broadcasting Act to give new powers to Canada’s government.

A Brief Explanation of C-11

Act C-11 amends the Broadcasting Act to grant the CRTC the power to regulate content Canadians access on the internet to prioritize the “needs and interests” of Canadians. In short, the Act is designed to force streaming platforms to favor and provide financial support for Canadian-made content. Since parliament recently passed the Act, it’s now up to the CRTC to decide the specifics

If the CRTC decides to impose the same requirements for online platforms as it does for traditional broadcasters, they’ll have to spend 30% of their revenue on supporting Canadian content. Internal Heritage Department documents predict the online streaming bill will lead to an $86-million annual “surge” in Canadian TV production budgets.

The CRTC’s new scope of powers extends to social media. This has caused worry among content creators who fear platforms like TikTok, Twitch, and Instagram will now be forced to change algorithms for audiences in Canada in a way that would badly affect user-generated content. Based on the internal documents mentioned above, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist says YouTube is the only social-media platform likely to come within the scope of Bill C-11.

That said, critics maintain C-11 is too broad and ambiguous in its wording, which can be potentially misleading in terms of who the bill impacts.  In 2022, Canadian content creators made their voices heard to get the Bill amended. This succeeded in changing the Bill to make it clear it only focuses on content created by large companies like Netflix and Warner Bros., not user-generated content. 

Unfortunately, the government gave notice of a motion that rejects the Senate amendment on March 7 before the Bill was passed. This move doesn’t make sense, considering the amendment reflected the government’s self-proclaimed intentions with this Act.

Why is C-11 Controversial

Act C-11 applies to all audiovisual streaming platforms, including Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, Spotify, and YouTube. It creates an opportunity for the CRTC to have control over how these platforms display content with a bias toward government-approved Canadian content.

The Act forces online services to comply with its mandates or they’ll face heavy fines. This means, paired with the ambiguous language used in the Act, the CRTC gains broad powers to control what Canadians can easily discover and stream online. The Act doesn’t provide the CRTC with powers to ban any content, but if algorithms are proven to be powerful in shaping what type of content people are exposed to. 

While debate still continues about how companies structure and influence their own platforms’ algorithms, these are normally geared toward showing you content you’re interested in. Platforms like YouTube uses data like your clicks, watch time, shares, and likes to generate new content suggestions for you. The Act gives the CRTC the power to manipulate this system according to the CRTC’s priorities, rather than the interests of Canadian users.

In other words, this Act can be used to apply a form of censorship. The CRTC also doesn’t have the best track record of consistently defining content as “Canadian content,” also known as CanCon, under the Broadcasting Act. For example, the agency refused to clear content like Turning Red (Canadian director and set in Canada) and The Handmaid’s Tale (filming and studio work done in Toronto), yet The Tudors (Canadian producers collaborated on the show) did. 

Creators fear the Act may hurt their ability to reach audiences instead of supporting their content. Many are also worried they’ll have to jump through complicated hoops to make sure their content meets the criteria to be featured. On top of that, this creates a lot of space for abuse, both from creators who could try to game the system and from the CRTC who can keep applying bias to its decision-making process.

When Will C-11 Be Implemented?

Bill C-11 passed in the House of Commons on June 21, 2022, and passed in the Senate on February 2, 2023. It received royal assent on April 27, 2023. Now it’s moving on to the final steps of the legislative process where the CRTC will create a plan for how to implement the new powers granted by Bill C-11. The first part of this process involves consulting with the public, content creators, and businesses. 

Once the CRTC has a functional plan in place, it will publish the details in the Canada Gazette which means you’ll get the chance to comment on it. After the public has had a chance to provide feedback, the CRTC will amend its plan and then start a consultation process on how to enforce C-11.

How Does C-11 Impact Canadians

Thanks to its broad language, Act C-11 gives the government power over what Canadians can watch and listen to online. The law gives the CRTC the power to force platforms to change how they promote content to Canadians. It means that, instead of Canadians freely deciding what content they’d like to see online, the government will decide for them

Studies have shown algorithms have a strong impact on audiences’ exposure to content and this Act gives the CRTC the power to control these algorithms. This means the CRTC can promote its own interests by pushing certain content to Canadians’ feeds under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Act. 

In the best-case scenario, this may just mean you see more Canadian content on YouTube or your preferred streaming platform. Yet services likely won’t suddenly start investing in Canadian shows, start creating more Canadian content, or hire more Canadians — at least not in the short term. 

Instead, the threat of fines might mean services remove content from their Canadian libraries until their ratios look more favorable to the CRTC’s quotas. If that happens, Canadians will have access to fewer shows, movies, videos, and music than they had before. 

It may also impact the livelihoods of Canadian content creators as well as creators that target audiences in Canada. By rejecting the reasonable amendment to Bill C-11 before it became law, the House of Commons has shown it may not hold creators’ best interests at heart. At the very least, it shows the government isn’t interested in listening to local creators — the same people promoting Canadian culture, which the Bill is supposed to support.

How Can Canadians Avoid C-11’s Restrictions

Sadly, Bill C-11 managed to become law without the amendment requested by content creators and digital rights activists, but you can still make an impact. If you’re Canadian, you can demand amendments to the CRTC’s plan when it opens for public comment. While you can’t prevent the law from being implemented, you can still have a say on how it will regulate online media. It shouldn’t be up to the government to decide what you can watch or listen to.

You can also use a VPN to access the internet without restrictions. You can replace your IP address with one from a different country of your choice, like the US. That way, you can keep using your favorite online platforms like you normally would, without direct government interference.

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