Canadian Government Ditching Accountability Over Bill C-10

It seems growing awareness over Bill C-10 is making the Canadian government nervous. They’re now shutting down transparency over it.

The fight over Bill C-10 is taking an all too familiar turn recently. The Canadian government is now trying to clamp down on mechanisms that allow for transparency and accountability for the law. This appears to be happening as awareness grows over the law.

Bill C-10 has become known as a major set of new regulations on the Internet. Things like requirements surrounding discoverability for Canadian content and mandating new cancon requirements for online services. Many fear that this will discourage internet companies from even attempting to get into the Canadian market.

Now, we are learning that the Minister of Canadian Heritage is taking another all too familiar step: the ministry is accused of shutting down debate and closing down mechanisms of transparency surrounding Bill C-10. That decision is raising even more alarm bells amongst Canadian observers. From Michael Geist:

In an earlier era (or with a different government), the prospect of conducting a study of the bill while simultaneously engaging in second reading would garner loud objections. In fact, at the Heritage Committee hearing last week, opposition MPs wondered why they were already being asked for amendments to the bill when they had yet to hear from witnesses, much less conduct an actual study of the bill. Indeed, for a government that once prized itself on robust consultation, it seemingly now wants to avoid any genuine consultation on Bill C-10, content to have potential amendments presented through lobbyists, rather than on the public record in open hearings.

The secrecy does not end there. At the same hearing (I was a witness and waited patiently for these issues to play out), Conservative MPs raised questions about promised data on how the government had arrived at claims that the bill will generate over $800 million in new money. Leaving aside the fact that Guilbeault has often inflated that figure to over $1 billion, there has no public disclosure about the source of this claim. Cartt.ca reports that officials told the committee that the calculations could be “confusing” without a verbal explanation. Days later, Dabrusin told the committee that in fact the data had been provided to the committee late last year but perhaps not distributed to committee members.

When I was questioned by Conservative MP Kevin Waugh during my appearance before the committee, he again raised concerns about the claim. Dabrusin interjected with a point of order to make it clear that the data had been provided to the committee, albeit not distributed to MPs. What made the exchange so striking was that Dabrusin – a parliamentary secretary – seemingly did not give any thought to the fact that the data has not been made publicly available. Promoting long overdue disclosures to a handful of MPs while the public is kept in the dark is hardly the stuff worthy of praise or a point of order.

Guilbeault’s appearance at Prime Time served as another reminder of how this legislative effort represents an abandonment of many of the principles long promoted by this government. For example, Guilbeault was forced to acknowledge that many of the policies associated with the bill have not still not been made public and will only be forthcoming in a still-secret policy directive to the CRTC. The Minister tried to assure the audience that he was working to make the secret directive publicly available, as if it was acceptable to defend months of secrecy in which the implications of major legislation and full policy plans of the government has been effectively kept out of the public eye.

He was similarly questioned on the decision to remove cabinet appeals, a safeguard relied upon by all stakeholders. Guilbeault argued that he wanted to avoid giving the “web giants” the ability to delay proceedings through appeals, suggesting that he thinks abandoning due process for large companies was a reasonable justification. The Canadian independent production sector asked him to reconsider the approach.

With respect to that last paragraph, this is far from the first conspiracy theory pushed by proponents of these laws. Big publishers earlier tried to push the conspiracy theory that links and snippets amounted to aggregators “stealing” from publishers. The reality is, of course, that such activities fall well within the realm of fair dealing.

In fact, this activity actually benefits the publishers in question. Anyone who has any real familiarity with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or social media is keenly aware that you want your content shared on social media. You want your articles to appear on search results in search engines. This is because you stand to reap huge amounts of eyeballs with any particularly successful campaign on either kind of web service. I personally know because I live through this every day. If one of my articles showed up on social media, the idea of getting even 10,000 extra pageviews is practically cause to pop the champagne bottle. A well placed link can easily garner over one hundred thousand unique visitors. That is a really freaking big deal.

The above isn’t some top secret knowledge, though. This sort of thing is downright common knowledge with people who know how the Internet works. It is also far from a new phenomenon either. This has been going on for well over a decade and a half now. In the early days, we knew of the Slashdot effect as having a link go to your site and seeing a five figure number of users visiting the site. That alone was more than enough to take your whole website offline for a few hours back then. It was a huge deal in a good way back then. So, as far as we’re concerned, this theory that linking amounts to stealing is about as backwards as you can get in terms of thinking how things work online.

So, in short, this is far from the first conspiracy theory we’ve heard from them.

Now, we are seeing another conspiracy theory being floated by the ministry. Somehow, allowing appeals and witnesses is allowing “big tech” to influence and delay things. Chances are, the real deal is that more and more people are wising up to what is going on here. They know the threats Bill C-10 represents. The more people know about it, the more outrage is getting directed towards it.

As a result, publicity of any kind is now a threat to this legislation. It’s sort of an acknowledgement that the legislation is a bad idea. However, corporations have already paid huge sums of money to make this legislation the law of the land. So, it’s too late to go back to the drawing board and come up with something half way sane. The apparent solution is to ram the legislation through and ignore all the consequences and objections along the way.

This sort of stunt is also not really new if you know your Canadian copyright history. As far back as the Paul Martin Liberal government, then Canadian Minister, Sam Bulte, famously put on a hugely expensive fundraiser meant to garner influence from the rich and famous. People objected to this sort of activity and made it just another example of Liberal’s practically selling influence up front to big corporate lobbyists. As a result, digital rights advocates asked candidates running to sign on to a pledge that promised not to have money and lobbying influence their decisions on copyright law. Bulte famously fired back by calling Canadians “pro user zealots”. She lost her seat in the ensuing election.

When the Steven Harper Conservatives took over, the debate wound up being not much better. One of the ministers said that he was tabling the Conservative version of the copyright reform bill. Debate was, of course, shut out of the process, but rumors circulated that it would be yet another Canadian DMCA. The minister tabling the law was peppered by questions in his own riding about the bill, but he defended the secrecy by saying that debating the law before it was tabled was not productive.

After he tabled the law, all the fears were not only realized, but the legislation turned out worse than anticipated. When he was peppered with questions again, the minister defended himself by saying that the legislation is now tabled and the time for debate is over.

As we all know, Harper eventually lost the election, paving the way for the Trudeau Liberal government. With the heritage minister trying to turn this whole legislation into a big secret while shutting out the public, it seems that we are witnessing yet another repeat of this long sorry historic story of the Canadian government trying to look out for the interests of large corporations at the expense of the rest of Canada. Knowing the history, it’s disappointing, but not really surprising. Both Liberals and Conservatives have a long history of not being trustworthy on this file and this latest push is no different.

Michael Geist did note that a motion to withdraw Bill C-10 was proposed, but it is unlikely to succeed:

On Friday, Kram rose in the House of Commons stating:

I think we could do Canadians a lot of good by withdrawing this bill and rewriting it from scratch to ensure that everyone is included in it and to ensure we have the best legislation we can for Canadians.Therefore, I would like to move the following amendment. I move:

That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the word “That’”and substituting the following: “Bill C-10, An act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts, be not now read a second time but that the order be discharged, the bill withdrawn and the subject matter thereof referred to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.”

The government will obviously not support the amendment. Indeed, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage has already started down the questionable path of conducting a hearing “about” the bill rather than a hearing on the bill itself as would normally occur once a bill receives second reading approval. I appeared before the committee on Friday – see this week’s Law Bytes podcast – but the rush to judgment outside conventional Parliamentary processes is disturbing. The latest motion to withdraw the bill entirely provides an important reminder that there are significant flaws in the proposed legislative reforms that demand careful study and consultation, not the fast track process the government is trying to pursue.

At this point, there is the possibility that the Liberal government could trigger an election later this year. If this bill isn’t getting passed before that happens, then like so many bad copyright bills, it’ll die on the order paper. Hopefully, in that scenario, it’ll get swept into the dustbin of history, but it might easily get revived again in the next government anyway. The chances of an election call is fairly slim, though. The next chance that an election could get called is when the Liberals table the next budget – something that appears to be some distance away still. It’s not out of the question that the bill dying on the order paper is a possibility, but it’s too early to tell if that is the ultimate fate.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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