Does the Government of Canada Still Support the Open Internet?


Daniel Bernhard, FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting 
Michael Geist, University of Ottawa 
Laura Tribe, OpenMedia
Janet Yale, Chair of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel
Byron Holland, Canadian Internet Registration Authority (Moderator)  

Key Issues 

  • How and when Canada ought to assert its sovereignty and jurisdiction with “Big Tech”  
  • Supporting news media, arts, and Canadian culture in the digital age 
  • Net neutrality 
  • The need to have a sophisticated discussion about the differences between various online service providers instead of painting “Big Tech” with a single brush 

Discussion Overview

The Canadian government’s approach to Big Tech rests largely on taking advantage of its success and continued growth, rather than trying to limit the companies’ power and influence. The panelists suggested that its haste in trying to “level the playing field” between Canadian companies and the “web giants” has led to a mismanaged policy process, ill-defined concepts in legislation, and confusion over its commitment to the principles of the open internet.  

There are various approaches to reigning in Big Tech being pursued across the globe, including through anti-trust, privacy reform, and copyright. In Canada, there has not been a sophisticated discussion about the differences between the services Big Tech companies like Facebook and Amazon offer and the companies themselves. This has led to inappropriate legislative responses that are motivated by the desire to take on Big Tech and use their power to benefit legacy Canadian media. Some panelists suggested that there is existing legislation in Canada that the government has not taken full advantage to hold large online service providers accountable. 

There are large discrepancies between what was promised, what was intended, and what has ended up in Bill C-10, An Act to Amend the Broadcasting Act. The panelists suggested that the government seriously mismanaged the parliamentary process for a Bill that might have an incredible impact on the Canadian internet users’ online experience, freedom of expression and net neutrality. Though the intention to exempt user generated content and small online undertakings from CRTC requirements was initially there, the policy process resulted in the removal of these protections. The Bill would provide the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) substantial discretion over key elements of the Bill, like its discoverability requirements. There is currently very low public trust in the CRTC, making this discretion potentially problematic. The potential for discoverability requirements to result in the prioritization of some content and de-prioritization of others calls net neutrality into question, though some simply argue that the Bill’s discoverability requirements will only increase Canadian choices without affecting net neutrality or freedom of expression. Some argue that digital CanCon is strong enough to stand on its own without government intervention.  

There is widespread agreement that news media need financial support, as a diverse and vibrant news sector is vital for a healthy democracy. The Australian model requires that large platforms make payment arrangements with news media to share their content. The EU model uses copyright to compel platforms to pay for links and shared news. Both models can be problematic as they create the potential for less news to be present on platforms, which is contradictory to the goal of giving citizens’ more access to high quality news. A tax and grant system is one possibility for Canada.  

Key Insights

  • The debate around Bill C-10 serves as an indicator for how the rest of the government’s internet policy may be received.  
  • The government should go back to the drawing board to clearly define several key terms and concepts before regulating Big Tech, such as CanCon, discoverability, social media services, and the delineation between companies’ services and the companies themselves.  
  • The government should begin by enforcing existing laws to keep Big Tech in check and ensure they are responsible for the harms occurring on their platforms.  
  • While drafting legislation to support news media, arts, and culture, the government should begin with an understanding of what their intended outcomes for Canada are.  
  • Messaging is of utmost importance to reaffirm the commitment to net neutrality and principles of the open internet.