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Controversial bill to regulate online streaming becomes law

A controversial government bill to overhaul Canadian broadcasting laws to regulate streaming services has passed the final hurdle in the Senate and received royal assent Thursday evening.

After years of debate, the Senate gave its final approval Thursday to Bill C-11, also known as the Online Streaming Act. It received royal assent shortly after.

The bill makes changes to Canada’s Broadcasting Act. The legislation requires streaming services, such as Netflix and Spotify, to pay to support Canadian media content like music and TV shows.

It also requires the platforms to promote Canadian content. Specifically, the bill says “online undertakings shall clearly promote and recommend Canadian programming, in both official languages as well as in Indigenous languages.”

The changes give the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s broadcast regulator, broad powers over digital media companies, including the ability to impose financial penalties for violations of the act.

The government says the legislation is necessary to impose the same regulations and requirements in place for traditional broadcasters on online media platforms. Right now, broadcasters are required to spend at least 30 per cent of their revenue on supporting Canadian content.

“Online streaming has changed how we create, discover, and consume our culture, and it’s time we updated our system to reflect that,” a government news release on the bill says.

The Conservatives have slammed the bill as an attack on freedom of expression.

“Under this archaic system of censorship, government gatekeepers will now have the power to control which videos, posts and other content Canadians can see online,” a Conservative webpage on C-11 says.

The public debate has been contentious, with supporters saying the bill will boost the Canadian media and arts sectors, while critics warn that the bill could over-regulate the internet.

Internet companies affected by the legislation also have criticized C-11. The online video sharing platform TikTok warned the bill could affect its users, despite the government insisting the regulations won’t cover user-generated content.

“Without the legislative clarity they asked for, digital-first creators are now left to simply hope that the government keeps its promise not to regulate user-generated content,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement.

Google, YouTube’s parent company, launched a public campaign against the legislation, saying it would negatively affect users’ experience on the platform.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, C-11’s sponsor, has dismissed much of the criticism of the bill from the Conservatives and tech companies, describing it as inaccurate.

The bill’s journey through Parliament has been difficult. Rodriguez tabled the legislation in the House of Commons in February 2022. Nearly a year later, the Senate sent C-11 back to the House of Commons with amendments. The House accepted most of the amendments but rejected others.

One of the most contentious points of debate is whether C-11 would apply to user-generated content, such as podcasts and online videos. The government has insisted that the legislation is not intended to regulate independent content creators.

One of the Senate’s amendments would have added protections for some types of user-generated content like comedy acts and instructional videos. The House rejected that amendment, arguing that it could create loopholes for streaming giants.

The House sent the bill back to the Senate, and — after days of further debate — C-11 received formal approval from the upper chamber on Thursday.

Sen. Paula Simmons, who said she sought to quiet the firestorm of disinformation surrounding the bill, endorsed an amendment that would have added further protections for individuals who post content online.

She ultimately voted against the bill but said the claim that the bill amounts to censorship is “fearmongering.”

“We may think it’s nanny-statism to a certain extent, trying to get us to eat our vegetables. You know, eat your kale, eat your yogurt, watch your Cancon. That is not the same thing as censorship,” she said told CBC Radio’s The House in an interview airing Saturday.

Sen. Andrew Cardozzo, a former CRTC commissioner, said broadcasting rules needed to be updated to address the change in technology.

Conservative senators argued that the upper chamber should stand its ground and force the government to accept its amendments.

Sen. Leo Housakos said he was “disappointed” when the bill passed.

“I’m disappointed … that the Senate didn’t stand its ground given the fact that we’ve heard from so many stakeholders that are so concerned about this piece of legislation,” he told The House.

The government put forward a similar version of the bill in 2020 but it died when Parliament was dissolved in August 2021.

Bill’s effects in practice still a mystery
The bill’s broad language means it’s unclear what it will do in practice — an aspect of the legislation the Senate has acknowledged.

For example, the bill says Canadian broadcasting should “serve the needs and interests of all Canadians, including Canadians from racialized communities and Canadians of diverse ethnocultural backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, abilities and disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and ages.”

“Precisely what this would mean in concrete terms for broadcasters is not yet known,” a Senate page on C-11 reads.

“Another complicating factor is that the bill would give the CRTC new powers — but exactly how or even if the CRTC would make use of them cannot be determined through an analysis of the bill alone.”

But the government is expected to clarify many areas of uncertainty through a policy directive to the CRTC. A Senate amendment that the House of Commons accepted requires the CRTC to hold public consultations on how it will use its new regulatory powers.

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