Could the federal government regulate your cat videos on YouTube? Maybe, former CRTC vice-chair warns

OTTAWA—Despite the federal government’s assurances that it won’t regulate videos Canadians post for fun on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, a former top regulator has warned that a government bill still leaves the door open for doing precisely that.

Ottawa has repeatedly maintained that Bill C-11 — which is intended to bring streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon and Crave under the same regulations applied to traditional television and radio broadcasters — would exclude so-called user-generated content from any oversight. The bill, which is winding its way through the House of Commons, seeks to update Canada’s outdated Broadcasting Act. It would impose rules on streaming services such as increasing the representation of marginalized communities in their content, changing how Canadian content is produced and discovered, and subjecting them to ends for violations of the act.

“The government’s been clear about its objective that between both the bill and the subsequent policy directive, digital-first creators and their user-generated content are scoped out,” Liberal MP Chris Bittle said during a meeting of Parliament’s heritage committee on Tuesday.

Bittle then asked Peter Menzies, a former vice-chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), whether the regulator held the power to disregard policy directives and subject individual content to the new rules.

While the committee clock ran out and Menzies was barred from responding, he confirmed to the Star after his appearance that such directives are not set in stone.

“Policy directives can be efficient, but it’s much more efficient to have your intent stated in the legislation,” he said.

“Another government, three or four years later, might look at that and say, ‘OK, we’re going to supersede that policy directive with another policy directive,’ and it won’t even get debated in Parliament.”

What’s more, Menzies said it’s up to the CRTC to “interpret” the directives — interpretations which could change in the years following the bill’s passage.

“It just kind of fades away,” he said. “Five or six years from now, the CRTC takes a look at it and says, ‘Yeah, that’s the policy directive. Circumstances have changed, we’ve got a lot of evidence suggesting we should do this.’ And they could, and nobody will pay attention.”

Tuesday’s committee meeting was the first since CRTC chair Ian Scott told MPs last week that a “provision” in the bill would allow the commission to regulate user-generated content. Scott said the regulator has “never interfered” with such content before.

A spokesperson for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s office said while regulating personal content is not one of the minister’s objectives, “there is a good debate underway in the parliamentary committee … and we’re looking at options on how to strengthen it.”

“Canadians and their usage of social media are excluded from the Online Streaming Act. However, YouTube, as the largest streaming platform of music in Canada, is within the scope of the bill. Again, users will not have any obligations. Only platforms like YouTube will have to contribute to Canadian culture and pay its fair share,” spokesperson Ashley Michnowski said in a written statement.

The debate over exactly which content is covered by the bill stems from a section of C-11 that outlines when the CRTC can regulate content uploaded to social media.

But Menzies said that leaving that section as written and relying on policy directives could open a pathway for user-generated content to become regulated under future legislation, such as the government’s impending framework on tackling online harms.

If a policy directive instructs the CRTC not to touch individual content for the purposes of C-11, Menzies said, it creates a possibility that it could be regulated under other laws that might rely on the CRTC to make regulatory decisions.

“You’re kind of opening the door… for future use,” he said. “That’s the only thing that makes sense to me, because I don’t understand why they’re fighting to keep it in.”


Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel


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