Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault today urged MPs to "quickly" pass the Liberal government's controversial broadcasting bill despite claims that it could infringe upon the free speech rights of social media users.
In an appearance before the House of Commons heritage committee, Guilbeault said Bill C-10 is meant to target foreign streaming companies and social media sites, not individuals.
"Our broadcasters, our production sector and the culture sector as a whole are counting on this new legislative tool to continue to flourish on digital platforms," Guilbeault told the committee in French.
"The bill is about restoring a balance that the arrival of the web giants has skewed very seriously in their own favour at the expense of local people and businesses."
Bill C-10 is meant to bring digital streaming services like Netflix, Spotify and YouTube under the purview of the Broadcasting Act. The government is seeking to ensure that these companies abide by rules similar to those that apply to traditional radio and television broadcasters, including an obligation to contribute to and promote Canadian content.
The bill came under fire after the committee removed a clause that would have excluded from regulation user-generated content posted to social media sites.
Internet law experts and opposition MPs said removing that exemption would give the CRTC the power to regulate the posts that millions of Canadians upload to these platforms every day — something they saw as a violation of the charter right to freedom of expression.
WATCH | Opposition MPs ask heritage minister to explain Bill C-10:
At the committee, Guilbeault cited a charter analysis conducted by officials from the Department of Justice and released yesterday. It concluded that the bill in its current form doesn't present any charter-related free speech concerns.
"All of this would be done without ever preventing anyone from putting their own content online and sharing it, or forcing anyone to watch something online against their will," Guilbeault told MPs. "You and I, like all Canadians, would continue to enjoy the same freedom online that we do now."
Amendments proposed by a Liberal MP state that the CRTC's powers under the bill would be limited to forcing such online media companies to register with the CRTC, to report their revenues generated in Canada, to contribute to funds that support Canadian creators and to make Canadian content more discoverable on their platforms.
Discoverability on social media
Some critics point out the "discoverability" requirement in the bill — which is intended to make Canadian content more visible in streaming services — could give the CRTC the power to influence the kind of audio and visual content suggested by the algorithms used by streaming sites and social media companies.
"Though there are limits to the CRTC's powers, the fact that it can prioritize or effectively de-prioritize content in the name of discoverability has a direct impact on the expression of millions of Canadians," Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor and the Canada Research Chair in internet law, said in an email yesterday.
Conservative MP Rachel Harder asked Guilbeault directly if the CRTC will have the power to regulate algorithms. Guilbeault refused to answer yes or no.
"The concept of discoverability is ensuring that, as part of these platforms, Canadian content becomes more visible," he said.
NDP MP Rachel McPherson, who said she wants to see the bill pass, asked whether Guilbeault had a message for those Canadians who fear that their personal content will be subject to CRTC regulations.
Guilbeault avoided responding directly and instead said a long list of organizations in Quebec and English Canada support Bill C-10, particularly musicians, producers and writers.
Bill threatened by possible election call
With the House of Commons scheduled to sit for another four and a half weeks before breaking for the summer, the committee is running out of time to complete its review of the bill. An election call in the summer or fall would end the session and cause the bill to die on the order paper.
McPherson asked Guilbealt whether he could commit to ensuring the committee has enough time to complete its review and pass the bill before an election is called. Guilbeault said that the Liberals don't want an early election.
Conservative MPs on the committee complained that Justice Minister David Lametti didn't appear before the committee to discuss the charter analysis, as requested by a motion the committee passed on Monday.
"We are shocked and disappointed that the Liberal minister of Justice would simply refuse to show up in committee today," Conservative MP Alain Reyes said in a statement following the meeting.
"Minister Guilbeault did show up but did not answer questions directly ... [He] did not deny that he would regulate algorithms, and never addressed concerns about freedom of speech raised by many experts since the Liberals' concerning vote to remove protections for social media users."
A spokesperson for Lametti said late Friday that both he and Guilbeault would appear before the committee on Tuesday.
"Minister Lametti is aware of the committee's invitation to appear before it, and will do so along with Minister Guilbeault, who is the responsible minister," said David Taylor. "In order to assist the committee in its work, Minister Lametti will be prepared to answer questions concerning the charter statement for C-10, as well as the analysis of certain amendments prepared by his department."