Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a plan to regulate online speech by putting it under the control of Radio, Television and Communications Canada. His bill is so egregious that Peter Menzies, the commission’s former vice chair, said it “not only infringes upon freedom of speech, but constitutes a comprehensive attack on it and, through it, the foundations of democracy.”
Trudeau’s liberals claim that they just want to level the playing field between traditional broadcasters and online players like Netflix and Spotify. However, on the face of it, the law goes much further than that.
First of all, anyone who makes programs available online will be treated as a broadcaster and under the thumb of the CRTC. While the websites would not need an official license to operate in Canada, the commission would have open authority to impose conditions and require them to “incur expenses to support the Canadian broadcasting system”. Who should do this and how much should they spend? They will tell us later.
The legislation also vaguely alludes to the need for the Canadian broadcasting system to serve “the interests of Canadians of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds”. Again, who will have to do this and what they have to do is anyone’s guess.
Stephen Gilbolt, whose Department of Canadian Heritage oversees the CRTC, has struggled to shed light on how the procedure works. For a time, the bill has included specific exemptions for user-generated content. But then that provision was scrapped – a move that was deemed necessary to capture sites like YouTube, but also because the government claimed the exemption had already been addressed elsewhere. Not so.
Then only “professional” content would be curated; Users themselves will be exempted. Except for users with a large number of followers who were acting like broadcasters. Or, as Mr. Guilbeault later explained, not “an individual – a person – using social media.” If you’re having trouble following along, you’re not alone.
Before entering politics in 2019, Mr. Gilbolt spent his entire career as an environmental activist. Like many members of Trudeau’s cabinet, he has no prior experience in the area of government he oversees. But what he lacks in experience he makes up for in enthusiasm. Having concluded that Canada’s hate speech laws do not do a good enough job of censoring “harmful” comments online, for example, he is working on another bill that would create another regulator to deal with online harms.
Giving bureaucrats the power, for example, to require YouTube to silence Jordan Peterson, to fine Spotify for something Joe Rogan says in a podcast, or to impose an obligation on independent podcasters like Sam Harris to contribute to the production of Canadian content is as dangerous as it is absurd.
More likely, independent voices who are being harassed will geo-block their content to avoid the headache of doing business with Canada at all – a way for the government to create a Chinese-style firewall without having to go through the same problems.
Mr. Cooper is a Toronto-based media attorney.
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It appeared in the May 19, 2021, print edition as ‘The Great Firewall of . . . Canada?.’