ExpressVPN Warns of Censorship in Bill C-11… and They’re Not Wrong

Canada’s Bill C-11 was always destined to be a gold rush for VPNs. ExpressVPN has essentially punctuated the point.

When countries push laws increasing censorship, there is a silver lining for some businesses. It’s usually a major opportunity for VPN services that are used to mask people’s location and bolster privacy. At least, that’s the theory on paper for what VPN’s are for which doesn’t always work out in practice, so it is important to actually research the VPN services first before you start committing to using it.

Of course, a governments push for censorship can happen with any country at any time. Canada has definitely not been an exception to this thanks to the push of the Online News Act and the Online Streaming Act. ExpressVPN has recently taken aim at the Online Streaming Act in particular and is warning people that the legislation would inherently lead to censorship. Here’s part of their comments on the legislation:

Why is Bill C-11 considered controversial?

The law imposes censorship, essentially giving the Canadian government the power to decide what entertainment to promote to residents rather than allowing content suggestions to be based on an individual’s preferences.

There is also an uproar around what constitutes “Canadian content,” also known as CanCon, under Canadian broadcasting regulations. This is because CanCon must meet a points-based system, and audio-visual content is subject to significant scrutiny. In recent years, there have been instances where productions about Donald Trump and the English Tudors have been greenlit as CanCon, while homegrown stories like The Handmaid’s Tale and Turning Red have not met the standard.

There are also worries among local artists and content creators that Bill C-11 may have unintended consequences for them. Small and digital-first Canadian content producers are especially concerned that the potential restrictions and algorithm changes will hurt rather than enhance their ability to feature on social media platforms in Canada, as the bill doesn’t currently include their content. For Canadian creators who are included, they might meet with red tape that inhibits their global reach.

One aspect that surprisingly few people get right is why the Online Streaming Act does bring in censorship. The errors have come from multiple parts of the debate as well.

On the one hand, the legislation does not discriminate based on political view point. There simply is no mechanism in this particular law that does that, let alone allow for such a concept to be carried out. What’s more, there is no provision in the law that removes content.

On the other hand, some people jump to the conclusion that because speech is not actively removed, then that automatically means there’s no censorship to be had. The problem with this argument is the fact that active removal is not the only way you can trigger complaints about violations of freedom of expression. Another way a government can violate freedom of expression is through suppression of speech. To put it in another way, speech can be hamstrung in ways so that it cannot reach an audience.

The truth in the matter is that this law does bring in censorship because of the way online services operate and how this law interacts with them. When platforms recommend content based on your viewing history and preferences, the platform only has limited space to recommend content. When content is organically recommended, then smaller players can have their content recommended to users, allowing smaller creators to get that much needed exposure while reaching the audience that would be most receptive to that content.

What this law does is circumvent those algorithms and order platforms to produce results tailored to their legislative requirements rather than what prospective audiences ask for. In fact, a specific portion of the recommended content must be that certified “Cancon”. As ExpressVPN actually correctly highlighted here, what is considered “Cancon” is very specific content that may not actually make any sense in the end. How much of those recommendations must be government certified speech has varied, but generally, the numbers range from 30%-40% (my understanding is that it is likely 40%.)

As anyone who understands basic arithmetic, there is an inherent problem. If there are fewer spaces for a smaller creators content to be shown to viewers, that decreases the likelihood that their content gets recommended in the first place. This is an affect I had actually created visualizations for if you want pretty pictures that show this. In a nutshell, though, creators content will get demoted in an effort to make room for the government certified speech.

The VPN provider went on to say this:

I’m in Canada. What will this mean for me?

If the bill comes into effect without any major changes, for the average Canadian—in the short term—there may not be a significant change. You may see more Canadian shows and songs appearing on your favorite streaming platforms. YouTube is also currently the only social media platform that comes under the scope of the bill, so you may expect to see more Canadian content featured on the platform, too.

In the long term, however, the bill may limit what content Canadians can access. For example, it’s unlikely that streaming services like YouTube, Netflix, and Spotify will suddenly start investing in Canadian shows more than they’re doing currently, or hire more Canadian actors, because of the bill. They also probably won’t suddenly change their algorithms to promote Canadian content. Instead, the threat of fines may deter these platforms, instead urging them to invest in other markets. This means that Canadians may ultimately have access to fewer shows, movies, videos, and music than they had before.

With respect to the first paragraph, even as far back as when this law was called Bill C-10, the CRTC had put together its regulatory hit list, and it was a long list of services they planned on nailing with this law. The list is largely premium services, though, but YouTube is, indeed, a social media platform that the regulator intends on slapping regulations on.

With respect to the second paragraph, that is actually a surprisingly modest interpretation of things. ExpressVPN here is saying that it is unlikely that services will suddenly start investing in Canadian production and encourage platforms to invest in other markets. In fact, Disney+, back in June, has already said that they are already divesting from the Canadian market. So, what the VPN provider says is likely has already begun to happen.

Indeed, though, for smaller providers, there is a strong incentive to simply block access to Canadian IP addresses rather than simply try and promote government certified “Cancon” – particularly when it comes to services that are specialized on content that originates from outside the Canadian market.

Unsurprisingly, the VPN service recommends using a VPN to circumvent all of this:

Are there ways to bypass the effects of Bill C-11? (Spoiler: It’s a VPN)

If you’re in Canada when the bill comes into effect, you may notice that the streaming content that’s recommended for you changes. You might no longer be nudged to watch shows that you like, or even ones that you just might like, because they didn’t qualify as being made in a certain country.

But it’s not really about streaming and entertainment. It’s about the freedom to watch what you choose and to enjoy a service the way it was intended to serve the user, not as dictated by a government—however high-quality the programs served to you might be.

Using a VPN ensures that you can access the free and open internet by placing yourself in a different country when you go online.

There is a push for the CRTC to demand that a platform under the Online Streaming Act scope ensure that the results are global. So, if you are an American citizen watching YouTube in the US, the dream for some pushing this legislation is to make sure they get recommended that government certified “Cancon”. Should that push be successful, it has a snowballs chance in hell of ever flying with the streaming services in general. It’s one thing to demand that Canadian audiences get a degraded experience, but it’s quite another to demand that all users get that degraded experience as well. In that scenario, services would rather block the entire Canadian market then put up with that garbage regulatory concept.

What the VPN provider does here is target the very people that would benefit the most from something like a VPN service. Indeed, if you mask your identity to be in another country, then it is very likely that you, as a user, would get back the original YouTube recommendation system you have always enjoyed.

Canadian creators might not have such an easy time since there are Adsense accounts to consider among other things. It’s not as simple as just hopping onto a VPN and expecting everything to work as normal once the law takes full effect. Conversely, however, it is likely that Canadian content creators will just opt to not be considered “Cancon” and enjoy the global audience as per normal. So, unless something changes significantly here, that is what numerous Canadian creators will likely end up doing because so many of them originally intended on targeting an international audience anyway. They aren’t totally out of luck, but there will be negative implications to their livelihoods.

Now, obviously, there is a financial interest underlying in all of this. This is, indeed, a VPN service recommending people use a VPN service. There’s an obvious financial interest in doing so here. Still, in going through what they had to say, I don’t see anything here that is really all that wrong in particular. I’d actually say this is probably one of the best assessments I’ve seen of the Online Streaming Act. Yes, I did add some comments here and there, but honestly, I’m sitting here living and breathing this stuff in the first place. There’s going to be something somewhere along the line that I can add to something like this. Still, it’s a great assessment of the new law and you can’t blame the service for at least letting people know about the benefits of their service in response to this.

(Via @SWBenzie)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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