MPs agree to legal review of broadcasting bill over free speech concerns

MPs on the House of Commons heritage committee today agreed to pause a detailed review of the federal government’s broadcasting bill while the Department of Justice determines whether recent amendments violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Committee members vote to call justice and heritage ministers to answer questions on Bill C-10

Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault insists that individuals who use social media would not be considered broadcasters under bill C-10 and would not be subject to the obligations or regulations in the Broadcasting Act. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

MPs on the House of Commons heritage committee agreed today to pause a detailed review of the federal government's broadcasting bill while the Department of Justice looks into whether recent amendments violate the free speech rights of social media users.

Conservative, Liberal, Bloc and NDP MPs all voted in favour of asking for a revised "charter statement" on Bill C-10. Such statements are issued by the justice minister to examine the potential impact new legislation may have on Canadians' rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The motion also requests that both Justice Minister David Lametti and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, along with a panel of experts, appear before the committee to discuss the implications of recent amendments to the bill and take questions from committee members.

Today's vote breaks a weeks-long deadlock at the committee and is a loss for the Liberals, who wanted the clause-by-clause review of the legislation to continue while the updated charter statement was being prepared by the Department of Justice.

Instead, that review has been shelved while the committee waits to see the charter statement and to hear from the ministers and experts.

Free speech uproar

Bill C-10 was introduced by Guilbeault to bring digital streaming services under the purview of the Broadcasting Act. It would allow the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — the country's broadcasting regulator — to require them to contribute to the creation, production and promotion of Canadian content, similar to how the CRTC regulates radio and TV content now.

The bill came under fire after the committee removed a clause that would have excluded user-generated content posted to social media sites from CRTC regulation.

The government said the exclusion would have allowed YouTube to escape the same reporting requirements and obligations to contribute to Canadian culture that would have applied to streaming sites like Spotify, Netflix and Amazon. 

But legal experts argued the changes gave the CRTC the power to regulate the posts that millions of Canadians upload every day to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube — something they saw as a violation of the charter right to freedom of expression.

The Liberals proposed an amendment to the bill last week to clarify the role of the CRTC. The amendment proposed allowing the CRTC to require the sites to make Canadian content more visible to Canadian users.

The amendment failed to mollify critics.

"Guilbeault and the government promised to remove regulation of user generated content by the CRTC. Instead ... it effectively confirmed that denials about the effects of the bill were inaccurate and left a regulatory framework in place," Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor and the Canada Research Chair in internet law, wrote recently in his blog.

Conservative MP Rachael Harder rises during a sitting of the Special Committee on COVID-19 in the House of Commons Thursday May 28, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Conservative MP Rachael Harder accused the Liberals of trying to censor users of social media platforms during question period in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

While Guilbeault has insisted that CRTC regulation will apply only to professional content posted to platforms that act as broadcasters, he muddied the waters himself over the weekend.

In an interview on CTV's Question Period, Guilbeault appeared to suggest that C-10 would allow the CRTC to impose discoverability regulations on individuals who have large online followings, or who generate significant revenue through their online content. Guilbeault's office later backtracked, saying individuals who use social media will never be considered broadcasters.

At a press conference today, Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin repeated the Liberal assertion that any CRTC-imposed obligations would only apply to the platforms. Dabrusin said such obligations include:

  • Allowing the CRTC to request information from foreign companies about how much revenue they make in Canada.
  • Compelling them to pay into funds that support Canadian musicians, writers and artists.
  • Requiring them to make Canadian content more visible on their platforms.

Dabrusin accused the Conservatives of holding up the committee's work for the past two weeks.

Conservative MPs have been especially vocal in their opposition to C-10 in its current form, saying that it would lead to government censorship of the internet.

During question period in the House of Commons today, MP Rachael Harder — the Conservatives' digital government critic — accused the Liberals of launching an attack on YouTubers to censor what people post to social media.

Guilbeault responded that the bill is not about what Canadians can or can't post online. He said the bill will make sure big streaming companies "pay their fair share" and make Canadian content more discoverable on their platforms.

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