Radio / Television News

COMMENTARY: The Online Streaming Act is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist

Canadians don’t want government interference in our online experience. Simple surgery on Bill C-11 would help our creative economy keep flourishing.

By Irene Berkowitz

PUBLIC DEBATE ON Bill C-11, The Online Streaming Act, is nearing completion. In June, the bill passed the House of Commons. It’s being studied by the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications; testimony concludes on Wednesday.

This bill impacts all Canadian content creators, both new and legacy media; the stakes are high to get this right. Some simple surgery on C-11 would go far toward allowing our burgeoning creative economy to continue flourishing.

At a C-11 conference last month, Canadian YouTube sensation J.J. McCullough nailed the bill’s most glaring misstep: that our government should regulate user-generated content in a way that will impact the business models of Canada’s new media creators. As McCullough said, “to see this success story as a problem to be solved is preposterous and unnerving; creators have a right to be concerned.”

Public policy should solve problems the market can’t. Sen. Paula Simons hit the bullseye, saying “I don’t see the problem to be solved.”

On the consumer side, as shown by recent research from our Privy Council Office, Canadians don’t want government interference in our online experience.

On the producer side, Canada’s entire creative economy is booming.

User-generated content adds $1.1 billion to our GDP and 34,000 jobs annually, without receiving or requesting public funds. This entire sector is additive and complementary — not competitive to the regulated side. Its continued growth depends on unfettered access to global markets.

In legacy, more people are employed and more content is being produced than ever before. The big problem for legacy producers is the outdated policy framework. They’ve worked so hard and deserve producer-accessed, platform-agnostic funding — which many countries already have.

Reworking this framework means rethinking access, contributions and Canadian content. Sen. Leo Housakos, the Senate committee chair, observed the definition of Cancon is outdated. “If a tennis star is financed by New Balance or Nike, does that make the player less Canadian?” asked Housakos.

David Fares, Disney’s VP of global public policy, reported to the Senate committee that Disney has spent $3 billion in four years in Canada, including uniquely Canadian stories such as 2022’s “Turning Red.” Though that film is about growing up in Toronto and written by Canadian Domee Shi, it is not considered Canadian content.

The word “heritage” implies preserving positive values, not preserving antiquated entitlements. Given that the internet is a once-in-600 years disruption, many countries have made digital technologies a separate portfolio. In my C-11 podcast “The Sessions,” former CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein asked: “Why is the minister of heritage Canada’s minister of the internet?”

Timothy Wu, one of the world’s foremost internet authorities who coined the term “net neutrality,” warned of the dangers of government interference in content control in his 2011 book “The Master Switch.” He argued that governments are “inferior arbiters of what is good for the information industries, and recommended “checking all power deriving from the control of information” because granting “any industrial power the protection of the state” inhibits the innovation needed for growth.

Wu cites Canadian icon Harold Innis, who believed an open information sector is fundamental to democracy because it concerns speech — meaning information industries are special because they decide who gets heard in a society. Hello, Bill C-11.

Why are our three categories of producers — linear, streaming and ungated — acting as frenemies? They should be close friends, strutting their remarkable data in one glorious report that makes sure C-11 works for the entire sector.

Here’s one simple idea that may help cut through some complex discussions about Canada’s media future: narrow the bill to deal with online streaming of gated content, and cleanly exclude ungated content from its scope.

Simple surgery won’t transform Bill C-11 into visionary legislation. But if it’s not done, legal challenges and massive CRTC hearings will delay benefits to legacy producers. As reported to the Senate committee, new media producers are already considering uploading their content from outside the country. The stakes are high.

Irene S. Berkowitz, PhD, is senior policy fellow at The Audience Lab, a research group in The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University, where she teaches. She is also executive producer and host of The Audience Lab Podcast series, The Sessions and Mediaucracy; author of Mediaucracy: Why Canada hasn’t made global hits; and lead author of Watchtime Canada: How YouTube connects creators and consumers.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star.