Broadcast Panel Chair: If TV Broadcasters Are Licensed, So Can Internet Sites

The push to regulate speech is continuing with a Broadcast Panel chairperson arguing that if TV broadcasters are licensed, so can Internet news services.

Fears of a new level of Internet censorship is circulating after yet another comment made by an official. The whole controversy started grabbing our attention when the Canadian Heritage minister said that it was no big deal to regulate the content of news organizations online. That sparked very understandable concerns that the Canadian government might be shifting away from an innovative net neutral policy to one with the heaviest regulations. The minister since walked back on those comments after considerable political backlash.

Later on, a CBC led cooperative, with other major media companies in toe, penned an open letter saying that the government should establish a list of “trusted” news organizations. If a new service does not fall within that “trusted” status, they would face heavy regulation. This ultimately confirmed that there is a very real push for the government to start regulating online speech and journalism.

Now, it seems that a broadcast panel chairperson is sending similar signals. In a post written by Michael Geist, details are emerging that the chairperson is arguing that is broadcasters are licensed, so should websites. From Geist:

Janet Yale, the chair of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, appeared earlier this week before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage to provide an update on the report. Her opening remarks directly addressed concerns regarding the regulation of news, claiming that there has been some confusion on the issue. Yet far from clearing up any “confusion”, Yale proceeded to inaccurately describe the state of news regulation in Canada and advocate for an expansive regulatory framework for Internet-based news aggregators:

We believe it’s not beyond the reach of policy-makers to bring the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon into some sort of rules-based construct. Already in Canada we licence news organizations like CBC, CTV, Postmedia and others, while wholly protecting editorial independence. Why should we not register the largest media companies in the world in the same way, and with the same editorial protections and exemption when it comes to news functions online. Why shouldn’t we insist they pay their fair share for leveraging the work of our journalists and news organizations. Let me be clear, nowhere does our report recommend or suggest that government should play a role in determining who is and is not a journalist. Nor do we advocate for regulation of news content, editorial practices or any interference whatsoever with the independence of news media.

This comment raises several issues. First, it is simply incorrect that Canada licenses news organizations such as Postmedia. The newspaper sector is not licensed in Canada nor should it be. The suggestion from the chair of the BTLR that we already do so is inaccurate.

Second, the ease with which Yale references licensing news organizations brings to mind the comments from Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault when he was initially asked about the issue and he responded by saying “what’s the big deal”? There are mounting fears that both the panel and Canadian Heritage envision a massive licensing and regulatory system for the Internet overseen by the CRTC that will capture the dissemination of news. The comments from both the Minister and the BTLR chair that downplay the significance of such an approach only heightens the concerns.

Third, the suggestion that the panel’s recommendations do not interfere with the independence of news media is inaccurate. News aggregators include services that curate the news (ie. make editorial choices about the content that appears on their sites) such as Google News, Yahoo News, National Newswatch or Drudge Report as well as sites and services that permit sharing of news stories such as Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook are all covered by the report with registration or licensing, mandated levies, and discoverability requirements.

We’re not necessarily disagreeing with Geist’s assessment. The sentiment is very accurate. There is, however, one possible thing that the chairperson is referring to when they are talking about licensing. When big newspaper and broadcaster businesses, well, go into business, they largely apply to get a business license. Technically, this is watched over by the government.

Of course, this has nothing to do specifically with news or the content of news (or editorial decisions for that matter). Any business such as restaurants, real-estate companies, or big name newspapers likely has a business license of some sort. Generally, it makes it easier tax-wise when you have, say, a dozen employees under you working on things from internal IT services to whatever else there is involved. We don’t know ever in and out of what goes in to a business license, so that is a very rough idea of what could be referred to in this case.

So, while there is a possible explanation for the comments that are made, it would still be highly misleading given the nature of the debate. With what the CBC suggested as creating a “trusted” set of organizations for news outlets operating in Canada, the question revolves around whether editorial and news decisions would be affected by any new license schemes. So, one can easily see the logical leap from a standard business license all the way to news licenses which has been suggested off and on.

Regardless, it still should be a worrying trend that we are still seeing movement in this creepy quest for online speech regulation in the first place. It will certainly be one story we’ll be keeping an eye on, that’s for sure.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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