Why Labelling the Internet As a Broadcaster is a Non-Starter for Bill C-10 Debate

A lot of wrongheaded opinions supporting Bill C-10 stems from considering the Internet as another broadcaster. We explain why this is wrong.

In August, much to the relief of those who value online free speech, Bill C-10 died on the orderpaper thanks to the election being called. When the new Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, was sworn in, many held out hope that a new face meant a new approach. Those hopes were largely dashed in a mere two days when he called Bill C-10 “fundamental“.

One of the few supporters for Bill C-10 just so happens to be the large media outlets. As a result, they are able to use their megaphone to push any voices they can to support Bill C-10. There’s a very real business reason to do so: more regulations on the Internet could stifle the Internet. This is great news for the media because they so often view the Internet as actual real competition. Snuffing out the Internet’s existence, as a result, would be a huge boon for their respective advertising dollar bottom lines.

So, because of this, we’ve seen a number of arguments for Bill C-10. They tend to start off relatively innocuous with the talking point that the Broadcasting Act hasn’t been updated since 1991. Indeed, if this was just about loosening regulations for television and radio, then Internet uproar would not even be happening.

That’s not what this debate is about.

Dig deeper into the supporters voices beyond the surface and it becomes clear that the push for reforming the Broadcasting Act is specifically about layering on heavy regulations on the Internet. Obviously, a lot of arguments for Bill C-10 seem to be rooted in one core argument: the Internet is just another broadcaster. Every other argument we’ve seen simply stems from this core false belief. Whether it’s saying that the Broadcasting Act needs to apply to the Internet or saying that Bill C-10 is not about speech regulation and censorship, the source of all of these lies can be traced to the belief that the Internet is just another broadcaster. Combine that with financial motivation for the media to push this disinformation and you got a pretty bad situation.

Why Cancon Requirements Came to Be

To understand why the Broadcasting Act regulations came to be, you need to have a general understanding of the pre-Internet technology – back when TV was the newfangled technology of the day. The gist of it is that in order to set up a TV broadcasting network, you needed to have permission to use the airwaves for your signal. That alone requires certain amounts of licensing from the government. What’s more is that the broadcaster needed to set up a business license and be able to afford hugely expensive equipment just to be able to broadcast. The hiring of the staff came after. Then, the question is, “what to air?”

For some broadcasters, they wanted to air some news, but the day has 24 hours. So, what they would often do is do things as cheaply as possible. So, what they would do is simply capture signals from the US, then take that programming and air their own advertising. Sometimes, you’d have simulcasting for shows (typically sports events). So, it became relatively easy to basically print money.

Of course, there is a very real problem with this: Canada is largely just airing American content. This effectively blocked off the ability for Canadian content to be made. After all, why go through the huge expense of producing a Canadian television show when you could just record and re-air an American program? In the television industry, this is called a “delay”. So, for some cultural sectors, they wanted to be able to break through with their own content. As (partly) a result of this, we started seeing Canadian content regulations (AKA “cancon”). After all, when you have only 12 channels for Canadians to choose from, you wing up with a captive audience to begin with.

So, it became law that if you are broadcasting in this country, a certain percentage of that content has to be Canadian. This is true whether it is television or radio. That way, Canadians can actually hear or see Canadian made content in Canada. That way, Canadians can better support the economy by hearing about, for instance, a Canadian artist and be interested in buying their album.

In short, the cancon requirements came to be in response to a very specific problem that has to do with geography and the limits of technology of the day.

Why the Internet is Different

While more channels kept getting added to television, another technological revolution unfolded: the Internet. It was partly born out of the question of what would happen if computers could communicate with each other. Many, of course, dismissed the Internet as “just a fad” and thought it would go away in a few years just like Pog and the Tickle-Me-Elmo. That, obviously didn’t happen and the Internet became a staple in every day life today. It wasn’t just some fad, but a technological revolution that you really can’t deny at all now.

Of course, the way the Internet works is very different from typical broadcasting. For radio and television, it is a one-way interaction. The broadcaster transmits a signal and the audience gets to passively consume that content. For the Internet, everyone can participate in discussions, interact with people who create content, spend money, and, most critically here, become creators themselves.

It now is no longer required to purchase expensive broadcasting equipment and require licensing agreements with the government to send content. What’s more, geography is now (largely) no longer a boundary. If anything, language barriers is where the boundaries are (and even then, there are holes being poked into those). Anyone anywhere in the world that speaks, for instance, English, and has an Internet connection, can theoretically “consume” this content right now. What’s more is that the content is (save for live streaming that isn’t recorded) on demand and available at any time.

In short, many of the hurdles that exists for TV and radio simply do not exist on the Internet. This, of course, has huge ramifications for how speech happens and why things like free speech is simply different. For instance, if you are trying to crack down on certain content, this also has ramifications for free speech as well. It’s not just a big broadcaster a government is targeting, but also the audience’s ability to communicate as well.

If a TV station is shut down due to violations of the law, the audience simply loses a means to consume a certain kind of content. If a website is suddenly heavily regulated or is shut down, the audience also often loses the ability to speak their mind as well. The differences only become more apparent the further down that rabbit hole you go.

Why the Internet is Not a Traditional Broadcaster

This is where the argument of “big tech” comes in. Not understanding (or not being paid to understand) the latter then often leads to the thinking that a site like YouTube is just another broadcaster. The false thinking is that YouTube provides the content. The reality is that users (AKA the audience) generally provides the content. YouTube is just an online intermediary that hosts and allows the streaming of that content. Obviously, the waters became muddy with licensing deals with record labels and television producers to host certain kinds of content, but the idea that the audience is now producing content hasn’t gone away.

The bar to become a producer is now quite low. Anyone with a camera (or even just a microphone) can be a producer. While this often leads to lower quality content, it also permits the talented, though often financially impaired, to break through and make a living producing content online. If you think you can produce something an audience will be interested in, do it. Because of this, you now have a huge pool of creators who are now making a living thanks to the Internet (and, in this case, thanks also to YouTube). This has, of course, produced many Canadian YouTube stars such as Linus Tech Tips and Furious Pete.

Of course, producers come from all over the world, not just Canada. As a result, you do have a reasonably organic community of producers producing content without the need of a major record label, a major studio, or a major broadcaster backing them. In fact, it’s partly thanks to these producers that a site like YouTube became the overwhelming giant it is today.

So, why does this matter in the context of broadcasting regulation? It matters quite a lot, actually. As I highlighted back in June, Bill C-10 pushes content that are “Canadian”. It sets up a bureaucracy that determines what is Canadian and what is not. Those requirements are quite steep. This includes that the content has to cover explicitly Canadian things, be available in a variety of indigenous languages as well as French and English, be produced in Canada, and a host of other requirements. With that amount of hoop jumping, the consequences are obvious. Organically produced content by small players gets pushed down, and the traditional producers get to soak up that valuable space in the front page and the recommendations section.

This, of course, has huge consequences for producers who only have a simple web cam and an idea. If they are going to be seeking an audience on YouTube in Canada, that becomes a much more difficult prospect. Canadians will have to wade through mountains of “Canadian content” just to get to the content they actually want. This is thanks to requirements that were in Bill C-10 that “Canadian content” be prominent.

Tying this back to the cancon requirements, there is not a problem that Canadians won’t be able to find an audience. If they produce something that people value, and they are able to get, admittedly, lucky, they are able to find an audience. That’s not something that happened when there were only 12 TV stations and three radio stations back in the day. In short, the push to get “Canadian content” in front of Canadians is ultimately a solution looking for a problem (or a hammer looking for a nail in this case). You can, very easily, search for Canadian content on YouTube. You might not have been able to do this if cancon requirements weren’t in place when TV and radio was first becoming big.

Of course, pushing down actual Canadian producers in favour of “Canadian content” also has another impact: freedom of expression. Despite the denials, the reality is that Bill C-10 was, in fact, a huge threat to free speech. This is because the government was actively trying to be the ultimate source for deciding which content is “Canadian” and which content is not. If a small producer was classified as “not Canadian” through one reason or another, their content would get buried when it otherwise wouldn’t have. As a result, the Canadian government is ultimately suppressing the speech of that creator.

Why Applying Broadcasting Regulation to the Internet is a Terrible Idea

The Internet in general is fundamentally different from television broadcasting and radio. It’s a two way interaction with audiences instead of a one way interaction with an audience. As a result, simply thinking the of the Internet as just another broadcaster is fundamentally wrongheaded from the start. As pointed out by others, if other countries started implementing similar laws surrounding content, seeking audiences would become substantially more difficult. Instead of being able to get a global audience, you start looking at an Internet with more borders and boundaries similar to the actual physical geography of different countries.

The implications here is that you quickly start maxing out your reach to just your country which is a huge difference from being able to reach a global audience as the Internet ultimately intended in the first place. Because of this, it becomes harder for producers to be viable as a producer online.

While this might cause traditional broadcasters to salivate, everyone ultimately suffers because of this.

If regulations need to be brought forward, first of all, there needs to be an identified issue to be addressed. Canadians have already been able to gain audiences, so a lack of Canadian content isn’t a problem. If traditional broadcasters are struggling to make money, then this isn’t a broadcasting regulation problem in the first place. Maybe it’s a subsidy issue or maybe its an issue of not producing content audiences actually want to see or hear, but regardless, it’s not a Broadcasting Act problem. If the concern is about misinformation, then look at specific regulations outside of broadcasting. Again, it’s not a Broadcasting Act problem.

By ruling out all of the above, what is the problem with the Broadcasting Act? The only thing we’ve seen is that it’s old laws. OK, it’s old, so what problems do we need to address that needs reform in the Broadcasting Act? At this point, supporters have yet to identify a real problem with the Broadcasting Act. Until there is an actual issue that needs to be addressed in the Broadcasting Act, then the arguments for its reform simply falls flat from the get go. In the vacuum of any reason brought forth, another reason ends up filling the void: because traditional broadcasters want to eliminate all of the competition.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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