What Went Down At the Now Infamous Heritage Committee

It was the Heritage Standing Committee that resulted in Liberals declaring war on any opposition to bill C-11, so what happened?

Throughout the process of drafting and debating Bill C-10 of the last government and the tabling and debating of Bill C-11 during this government, one thing has been very clear: digital first content creators in Canada were ignored throughout the process. No one who is making a living on YouTube or TikTok was consulted on what they think would be best. Instead, a law was thrust out into the public from a Canadian government who has already made up their mind on what they think is best.

Unsurprisingly, when the only people the government heard from was lobbyists from traditional broadcasters on the matter, a law was crafted that only suited their interests and left everyone else out in the cold. This left Canadian digital first creators scrambling to try and turn the tide and make it so that the law wouldn’t snuff out their careers completely as the bill currently threatens to do so now.

Last week, Liberals began openly attacking Canadian creators on Twitter – something that would later escalate to Liberals attacking anyone who dared to speak unfavourably to Bill C-11 (however correct those criticisms were). If you look at the comments, this meltdown by the Liberal party all stemmed from a Heritage Standing Committee meeting. So, what on earth happened during the committee that caused the Heritage Ministry to so directly attack Canadian creators in the first place?

Fortunately, it looks like that committee meeting was posted in video format online on the government website. So, it is possible to get the last missing piece of this story straightened out.

Opening Statements

The meeting started with opening statements. The first opening statement came from Darcy Michael. Michael reflected on his time as a creator who went to the three big networks about a concept for a show. Those three networks all said “no” and suggested that he do what so many other creators do: go to the US and seek success there. This, of course, is a very familiar story for a lot of Canadian creators. So, what Michael did was start a TikTok and start creating content for online only distribution. This thanks to COVID-19 hitting. As a result, he accumulated over 3 million viewers across multiple platforms. He, of course, talked about how he is there to talk about government impacts on the lives of digital first creators.

The second opening statement by Oorbee Roy. She mentions how she has had many doors open to her and is able to earn a living. This all starting from opening a TikTok account. This after distributing her media kit to 30 organizations, all of whom said “no” to her. So, an all too familiar scenario for many creators who have chosen an online environment as a distribution medium.

The opening statements of those two witnesses do reflect some much broader problems with established media organizations. It is a very common theme that media organizations such as those found in the music industry or television production industry that there are decisions that is very risk adverse. For instance, why go through the trouble of investing time and money into an up and coming act when a label can simply take a hit from the 80’s, issue another reprint, and keep selling those same records over and over again? Why risk investment dollars into a new concept of a TV show when one can simply rebroadcast something like Survivor?

When new creators come up with an idea that doesn’t quite tick off the right boxes in their minds or fits within an established norm, it often draws skepticism from various companies. Whether rightly or wrongly, idea’s, however good, are often cast aside as not fitting within the boundaries of a caricature of a supposed member of the audience. Indeed, for a time, that often ends with the creator seeing the end of the road for their career.

Thanks to the Internet, however, idea’s, however wild or different, can be produced and expressed. As a result, audiences can be found that can lead to long fulfilling careers – all without having to go through multiple layers of filtering that may or may not actually be beneficial to a company. Risk can be taken on by the creators of content without enormous expenses that tend to get racked up in licensing an contract deals that would otherwise need to take place on a traditional medium.

The end result is quite obvious, things like traditional television are experiencing a cord cutting phenomenon as audiences grow tired of stringent and predictable formula’s for entertainment. Often, those same audiences turn to the Internet where their tastes and interests can be more easily satisfied. Now, we have a situation where traditional broadcasters are struggling to fend off a vastly superior medium which has more valuable entertainment – a situation largely of their own making as so many in the past hoped that this whole Internet thing would one day just go away on its own.

Unsurprisingly, the well funded media conglomerates have grown increasingly interested in finding ways of “reigning in” big tech. Rather than adapt and try and find ways of harnessing the power of the Internet, many have taken to lobbying the government for laws that would curtail and crack down on their biggest threats. What’s more is that deep pockets are helping this lobbying effort. Given how well connected they are with the federal government, they seem to always have an ear and a hand willing to accept nice large sums of money or influence.

That is why those opening statements aren’t exactly surprising. It is the same story that plays out so very often. In fact, I was yet another one of those stories.

While working for ZeroPaid on one of the heights of its popularity, I pitched myself to multiple traditional media outlets. I pitched myself as a journalist who is always looking at the cutting edge of technology and having an ear to the ground on what is happening on the Internet. My skills, at that point, had already been proven long ago and event while I was making those pitches. In fact, I pointed out how the site I was working for was substantially more popular than their own web presences.

The results of my pitch were universal: the interviewer didn’t see what was so valuable about talking about things like technology and the Internet. One even told me, “Come back when you write real news.” A response I’m sure Jorge of ZeroPaid would be shocked by.

While they didn’t see the value in my work, I most certainly did. So, I would eventually roll up my sleeves and got to work creating Freezenet. Years later, the website’s presence would dominate all but the single largest player I ever pitched my skills to (Freezenet got close a couple of times of overtaking that last one, however). In short, Freezenet is starting to look like a repeat of the Blockbuster Netflix blunder. The site is outperforming whole teams of journalists with just my own effort.

Even more amusingly, one of those traditional news organizations that rejected my skills went bankrupt just two years later. My understanding is that a couple of others are also on the brink. This as Freezenet is looking at opportunities to expand operations with loads of growth potential. To this day, they either do not understand the potential for Freezenet or they are ignoring the site, praying that it will just disappear one day – even as their collective ships continue to take on water.

So, not only is the opening statements common, I myself have lived through a very similar story – though maybe not quite with the same dramatic effect.

First Round of Questions

The first round of questions were for the Conservatives. Rachael Thomas directed the first question to Roy where she asked about Bill C-11 and what effects it would have on Roy’s TikTok video’s. Before she could finish the question, Liberal MP, Chris Bittle (the same one that threw a Twitter tantrum) raised a point of order, saying that he doesn’t see the relevance of Bill C-11 to the well-being of content creators. The chair said that the meetings do allow a fair bit of leeway and that it is up to the witnesses as to whether or not they want to answer the question.

Thomas then carried on, saying that the laws do allow for creators to be compensated for their work. Bill C-11 would have an impact on that compensation, forcing them to pay 30% off the top of their revenue into the art fund. The creators would be forced to pay into this, but then have no opportunity to benefit from those same funds. She then said that the second aspect is that the bill would get the CRTC to decide what is and is not Canadian content.

Before the question could be completed, Bittle then made another point of order. Bittle said that the question refers to questions related to a bill that may or may not make it to committee and that he considered the line of questioning irrelevant. Tim Uppal then chimed in and spoke about how there were witnesses calling for tax changes that may or may not be related to the specific topic, yet that was still discussed. Uppal said that the taxes brought up would affect the artists livelihood and said that this meeting is actually an important opportunity to discuss these related issues.

The chair then said that he will allow Thomas to continue with the question since the status of artists is a very broad topic. Thomas continued that the taxes placed on the creators is very concerning as well as the fact that the CRTC is determining what is and is not Canadian content. So, she asked Roy about her reflections with regards to Bill C-11.

Roy responded that she is comfortable answering the question. She mentioned how she donated fabric to a hospital. Someone wanted to do a documentary about her contributions. When it was finally released, it turned out, she was completely cut from the whole documentary. As a result, she was unable to tell her story, so that was a motivating factor to starting her own TikTok video so she could tell her own story in a way she wanted to tell it. So, when she sees the potential of regulators regulating her content, she was not happy with this idea because she doesn’t want restrictions put on her. She says that she is very concerned about Bill C-11 and how it would affect all artists – especially in the digital space.

Thomas then asked the same question to Michael, the other digital first creator. Michael responded by saying that Bill C-11 would have a direct impact on his ability to earn a living. He commented that the logistics of the CRTC determining what is and is not Canadian is impossible. With thousands of videos uploaded every day, there is no way to approve that. The idea of the CRTC regulating the Internet in this manner is something that was envisioned without understanding what it is like in the digital first industry. He said that he doesn’t want to pay 30% of his revenue that he would see no benefit from as that is basically a second tax. At the end of the day, he thinks that he would pay 80% tax on his content which isn’t fair.

Fourth Round of Questions

The second round of questions was for the Bloc and the third round of questions was for the NDP. There wasn’t much to discuss, but it was revolving around universal basic income, tax incentives, and a number of different topics.

The fourth round started with 5 minutes and Conservative MP, Mr. Waugh noted the digital shift around the world. He commented about how the digital first creators are there, telling their stories and he worried that the larger organizations are falling behind. He remarked how there is a major shift in how people watch entertainment and how the three organizational groups seem to be living in the dark ages. Gordey commented that ACTRA is sitting on $800 million as a safety net for their memberships, so, batting away concerns that people are leaving the organization.

Waugh then turned to Michael and commented how Michael has 3 million subscribers which would be something he would have never gotten on Bell (ouch to Bell on that one). So, he was wondering how Michael handles the financial aspects of his life. Michael commented that he is still part of ACTRA. He commented that there are instances where he was upset at ACTRA such as forcing him to turn down a $7,000 gig. He then comments about the irony of how if Bell came to him today and offered the same deal he earlier proposed, he would turn Bell down because they wouldn’t be able to afford him. Michael makes more money doing it himself.

Michael went on to say that a lot of artists are getting included, but at the same time, a lot of artists are getting excluded. He cited several comedians like Jim Carey who had to leave the country due to a lack of support at home. He also commented about how comedy is not considered a valid art form in Canada – something he called absurd.

Michael said that if legislation is going to get passed in this manner, it has to include digital creators because digital creators are the way of the future. He said that network television now is what newspapers were 15 years ago, that it is a dying thing. So, legislation has to move forward to keep up with that shift.

Uppal mentioned income averaging and asked Michael whether that would help. Michael said that it would. Uppal asked the same to Roy and she responded that she doesn’t necessarily have the same access to brands as of yet, however, there are plenty of opportunities to make money in an online platform such as courses.

Uppal then asked Michael if there is anything the Canadian government should or should not be doing. Michael responded that the Canadian government should not be online determining what is and is not Canadian content. He said that he is a Canadian making Canadian content in Canada, end of discussion. Michael also commented that he is able to get more reach with the millions of followers he has and the second that Canada chooses what is and is not Canadian content is the second that industry dries up.

The chair then turned to Bittle. Bittle said that his understanding is that TikTok doesn’t pay a nickle for content. Michael responded that, yes, TikTok doesn’t pay creators in Canada for their content. His understanding is that there is only one country that does benefit from added revenue and that is in the US. However, he handles brands and the revenue from the brands that approach them is his.

Bittle then discussed Bill C-11 and that Michael’s concerned about the CRTC picking and choosing what is and is not Canadian content. Michael responded by saying that the legislation is quite broad. Michael goes into detail about how if the CRTC starts demanding that certain content gets promoted, that it is stifling to the creator.

Bittle then responded, asking that if he told him that C-11 does not regulate content and the CRTC wouldn’t engage in determining what is and is not Canadian content online, whether or not that alleviates his concerns. Michael responded, “No, it doesn’t.”

Bittle then asked if Michael could point to the section that he is concerned with and what section needs more clarity on his part (answer is section 4.1 and 4.2). Micahel responded that he doesn’t believe that the CRTC should be involved in social media. He believes that the traditional media is trying to get control over the Internet.

Bittle interrupted Michael’s answer and said that if the legislation doesn’t allow for the regulating of the uploading of Michael’s video’s, then how does that not alleviate his concerns (Narrator: the legislation does regulate user generated content). Michael tried to answer the question, but Bittle then interrupted him again and insisted that Michael can’t point to the specific section that is the cause for his concerns.

Thomas then raised a point of order saying that Bittle is harassing the witness and that the witness answered the question 4 times. She recommended that if he wants to follow up with Michael, then it can be handled offline. Thomas said that Bittle’s conduct is “totally inappropriate” as Bittle is berating the witness, saying, “It is wrong.”

The Chair then turned the floor to Bittle and said that we will endeavour to be nice people. Bittle then said that if Michael could cite the source of the bill that is concerning that he could get back to him on that. Michael responded that he would be happy to get back to him on that.

Roy then chimed in saying she doesn’t have the specific section, but she wanted to speak to how the algorithms work. She says that if the CRTC says that of the 10 TikTok recommendations, that 4 of them have to be Cancon certified content, then she and Michael would have to fight over the remaining 6 slots. She commented that she is not CRTC eligible. As a result, she would have to fight for those last remaining spots.

Lightening Round

From there, the Chair directed to the committee to the lightening round of questions. Thomas commented how Michael overcame adversity and asked if he needs the governments help with Bill C-11. Michael replied that, no, he does not. Roy was asked the same thing and she piggy backed off of Michael’s answer and encouraged a level of understanding of what digital creators can do first before legislation can be contemplated. She then gave a very hardy “no” to not include her.

Thomas asked if digital first creators were consulted in the drafting of Bill C-11. She said that she spoke to the Heritage Minister, but the legislation put forth didn’t seem to reflect that. As a result, she said that she doesn’t feel like she has been heard based on the line of questioning Michael was dealing with.

NDP MP, Peter Julian asked Roy about how income averaging would help digital creators. Roy commented that she didn’t know much about Universal Basic Income, but she did see the benefit of income averaging.

Julian then asked the ACTRA witnesses about how many members of ACTRA are also online producers. Both members acknowledged that they don’t have that information and wouldn’t be able to accurately track that due to lack of contracts. Gordey noted that the US equivalent of their union recently got an influencer arm and that it is something ACTRA is actively looking in to. He said that there is room in their organization for influencers, though.

The meeting then concluded.

Closing Thoughts

I will admit that this is not typical of Freezenet to actively pursue such a video to get to the bottom of what happened, however, I did find it enlightening. We did not become aware of something going down in such a committee until after the story blew up on Twitter. Obviously, seeing such exchanges on Twitter and seeing the committee being referenced, it sparked out curiosity in an effort to get an even more full picture of what happened.

Knowing what I know now about what went down in the committee, it actually ended up making Bittle’s response look much worse than what we first saw on Twitter. You really got a knee jerk reaction that anything bad said about Bill C-11 is automatically something that needed to be attacked. First, Bittle questioned the relevance of Bill C-11 when it was brought up by the witness, then later attacked the witness for daring to speak out on Bill C-11. After all, as Uppal pointed out, things like copyright law, tax reform, and other topics were brought up during the meeting without objection, but the second Bill C-11 was brought up, there was suddenly a problem. It didn’t really make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things.

I can safely say that Thomas was in the right to call a point of order over the harassment of Michael. It’s one thing to say that you are unclear what section of the bill is the cause for concern. The witness was fully within his right to say that he doesn’t have the bill in front of him so he could cite specific sections that he has concerns about. The problem arises when loaded questions are getting lobbed like saying that the bill doesn’t do what was suggested, does that make it all better? That is where Bittle crossed the line from simply asking a question to forcing his views onto the witness. To then constantly interrupt Michael like that and insist that the witness is wrong, yeah, that crossed the line into badgering the witness which was uncalled for.

So, at some point after that, Bittle then attacked the witness over social media which is when we found out about it. That was quite shocking in and of itself. It was shortly after that Michael Geist stepped in to answer the question of what sections of the bill are the cause for concern. Geist explicitly mentions the sections, the related facts, and why the witnesses were accurate in their concerns. If Bittle didn’t get his answer before, he got it during that Twitter response. For Bittle to then attack Geist and say that he is engaged in hyperbole and how his actions are beneath him for his profession was an order of magnitude more shocking than before.

To get an answer you allegedly wanted, not like the answer, and throw a massive Twitter temper tantrum over it is quite unbecoming of an MP. At that point, we’ve long left the area of “I don’t understand what the fuss is about” and entered into the area of “I am going to attack you because I disagree with you and will throw insults around because I’m mad about it”. It makes you shake your head as you marvel at just how out of control the situation got.

At the end of the day, though, it is fair to say that the situation has remained unchanged. Canadian creators are seeing a government let traditional media broadcaster write their legislation. Those same creators are seeing what the legislation is about and realize just how royally screwed they will be as soon as those laws are made into law. Little surprise that they are seeing a direct threat to their livelihoods and little surprise that they are acting accordingly. Anyone in that position will act in a very similar manner. If you found out that the government was tabling and trying to pass a law that would strip all your income out from under you, you’d be rightfully upset at the situation too.

I think it’s safe to say that I am pretty much with the same perspective as the witnesses speaking as digital first creators. Yes, I’m not exactly making a boat load of money off of my content, but the clicks and the impressions are growing. When I see the threat of this particular regulation, I see those green chutes of success that are forming getting completely wiped out. I didn’t know about the 30% tax being asked until I saw the meeting, so now I worry that if I tell the government I actually make no money off of the media I create, that I’ll get audited to the point where these endeavours won’t be worth it on top of it all.

It worries me and I seriously wonder if I’ll have to pivot Freezenet to something else simply because the Canadian government said that social media for content is now off limits. Luckily, the site was designed to withstand seeing social media get cut off from the beginning, but I never would have imagined that it would be the government to be the ones to swing that axe. I would have to dramatically reshape my strategy moving forward with this site and, what’s more, is that I worry about other laws like the link tax law and the online harms legislation that could wipe out the site on top of it all.

I do recognize that many creators don’t have the benefit of a fully functional independent website to back up their endeavours as many of them solely exist on the social media platforms in question. So, for those creators, instead of having a massive part of their project hived off out from under them, they are probably going to see their whole career end in pretty short order. That is distressing the idea of a whole industry getting wiped out in a single bill that should be stopped.

One aspect of hope from my perspective, however, is the possibility of a court challenge. I know I so often go back to this repeatedly, but I personally see this as the only real line of defence that is left. Bill C-11 does infringe on freedom of expression by suppressing the speech of Canadian creators online – specifically the creators that are not certified “Canadian”. Because it is a government mandate that is ordering this, it’s a clear cut Charter violation and, hopefully, it will get smacked down in court because of it. Props to whoever has the gonads to sue the government in that regard in that scenario.

It’s unfortunate that Canadian creators also have to endure the slings and arrows of Liberals for daring to speak their mind on this topic, but that is what we seem to face today. I’m convinced the creators will eventually come out on top on this. The question, in my mind, is how many will be hurt along the way. That is where the real tragedy in all of this lies.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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