Steven Guilbeault is trying to take on Big Tech. It's not going well.

·6 min read
Steven Guilbeault is trying to take on Big Tech. It's not going well.
Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault speaks with the media in the Foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday February 3, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault speaks with the media in the Foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday February 3, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

In an interview last fall, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault compared the Internet giants of today — platforms such as Facebook and Google — to the big polluters he fought for many years as an environmental activist.

The comparison is intriguing, perhaps even apt — and it might explain how Guilbeault is going about the task now of reining in this new generation of multinational corporate behemoths. While the battle Guilbeault fought before entering government was about the future of the planet, the struggle between governments and Big Tech is, in the words of Taylor Owen, founding director of The Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University, "about the future of liberal democracy itself."

But that comparison should have reminded Guilbeault that this fight would not be easy and that he would need as many allies as he could muster. He also might have guessed that being a cabinet minister with a bill to pass means dealing with intense scrutiny of every statement — probably unlike anything he faced in his previous career.

Now, Guilbeault and the Liberal government need to worry that their clumsy handling of Bill C-10 — the first of what is supposed to be a series of moves to regulate Big Tech — is going to make it even harder to win the battles ahead.

WATCH: Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault questioned about C-10

Amid mounting consternation about C-10, Guilbeault was summoned again by the heritage committee this week and appeared for an hour on Friday afternoon. If he was at all shaken or deterred by the events of the last few weeks, it wasn't apparent.

The bill's basic aim is to modernize the Broadcasting Act and bringing some of the major streaming sites — such as YouTube and Netflix — under the same sort of Canadian content regulations that govern traditional broadcasters. It would, for instance, ensure that those American platforms pay fees into a fund for Canadian producers.

First tabled in the House in November, the bill only really emerged as a flashpoint a few weeks ago.

During committee study in April, a majority of committee members voted to remove a clause from the bill that had excluded content uploaded to social media from regulation. The argument for removing the clause was that it might have inadvertently excluded YouTube from regulation.

Guilbeault's many missteps

But experts soon warned that, without that exclusion, social media companies would have to scrutinize what Canadians upload, which could infringe on a citizen's freedom of expression.

Successfully navigating those concerns was going to require a careful and steady hand. But Guilbeault has gone out of his way to make things harder on himself.

First, the minister struggled in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics to explain why the change was made. Then, after insisting the government had no interest in regulating Canadians' social media activity, he suggested in another interview that social media users with a large number of followers might be regulated.

Within a day, the minister had taken that statement back, conceding that he "should have been more precise." It's the second time in his brief ministerial career that he has had to eat his own words about the government's intentions.

Days later, Guilbeault tweeted someone else's claim that a "deliberate campaign of misinformation" was being waged by "commercial interests." That tweet led one expert to accuse the minister of employing "Trumpian tactics" against his critics.

Popular in Quebec

For all of that, Guilbeault and the government could take some solace from the fact that the bill appeared to be quite popular in Quebec, where the arts and culture community is very conscious of the need to create and preserve a space for French-language content.

Erin O'Toole's Conservatives, apparently unconcerned about the votes they might lose in Quebec by opposing C-10, are leaning hard into the idea the bill is a threat to free speech — a notion that registers with supporters who are ready to believe that Justin Trudeau is itching to censor their tweets.

WATCH: Erin O'Toole says he'd repeal C-10

On Friday, Conservative MP Rachael Harder pushed the Conservative argument further to suggest that the combination of clunky CanCon rules and new regulation of social media would have resulted in someone like Justin Bieber never being discovered.

(Depending on your taste in music, that might not actually count as an argument against the bill.)

Armed with a new analysis from the Department of Justice that said a newly amended version of C-10 would not infringe on the charter right to freedom of speech, Guilbeault insisted that his bill would not regulate the content created by Canadians and cited polling data that suggest Canadians support the sort of platform regulation that his government is pursuing.

But NDP MP Heather McPherson practically begged the minister to show some contrition and reach out to those experts who fear that C-10 is deeply flawed. "I have to express my disappointment in the way that you've managed the creation and the communications around this legislation," she said.

Guilbeault appeared unmoved and eventually suggested that some experts simply oppose all regulation of Internet platforms — a suggestion that Michael Geist, one of the leading academic voices on technology law in Canada, declared to be "simply false."

There's probably still a chance that C-10 will end up in some broadly acceptable form by the time it's made its way through the heritage committee, a third-reading vote in the House and further study in the Senate.

But C-10 is only just the start, one small piece of a larger puzzle. Guilbeault is also supposed to table legislation that would require platforms to remove hate speech and deal with other "online harms." He has promised that platforms like Facebook will soon be required to compensate news producers. And Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is trying to overhaul digital privacy laws.

Belatedly engaged, the challenge posed by these globe-spanning platforms is broad and deep — so much so that Guilbeault and his counterparts in several other Western countries have banded together to help each other confront it. That might be another similarity between the fight against climate change and the struggle to deal with Big Tech.

But that same spirit of cooperation might inform Guilbeault's domestic approach. If he's going to get to durable solutions, he needs as much goodwill as he can muster. He needs to offer clarity. He needs to avoid alienating every informed observer.

So far, it's not going great. And it's not going to get any easier.

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