Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Monday that the federal government has no plans to enforce a regulatory regime on Canadian media organizations after a report last week recommending vast new powers for the CRTC sparked concerns of regulatory overreach.
“Let me be clear, our government has no intention to impose licensing requirements on news organizations, nor will we try to regulate news content. We are committed to free and independent press, which is essential to your democracy,” Guilbeault said Monday.
His comments came two days after he gave an interview on CTV’s Power Play, in which he tried to downplay concerns about last week’s Broadcast and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel report, but in the process appeared to suggest that media outlets will need to register with the government in order to operate in Canada.
“Media can be confusing, I recognize that, because the report talks about media but not necessarily in the sense, necessarily, of news agencies, and maybe the confusion comes from there,” Guilbeault added Monday.
Despite Guilbeault’s efforts to mollify concerns, some critics say they are still alarmed by the BLRT report, and the powers it would give the CRTC to oversee Canadian content on the internet.
Speaking to the Financial Post after Guilbeault spoke Monday, Michael Geist, the Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, said he was alarmed by the government stance, and that any proposal to regulate news outlets was only the tip of the iceberg.
“It is almost impossible to overstate just how broadly this panel envisions regulating, really, the digital world,” Geist said.
“Obviously media is capturing the attention today. They talk about app stores. They talk about operating systems. They were asked last week about video games. There is practically nothing that touches the internet or digital world that the panel seems to think is beyond the reach of the CRTC.
The report, release last week, called for the Broadcast Act to be redefined beyond audio and visual news to include “alphanumeric news content” — something that could effectively bring all online news in Canada under CRTC oversight.
The report also calls for the CRTC to collect data on what Canadians are viewing on “online media content undertakings” and suggests the regulator should have the power to order services such as Netflix to display Canadian content prominently.
The report comes at a time when foreign tech giants are under increasing scrutiny in Canada, and countries around the world are studying options for how to better regulate online services.
In the 2019 federal election the Liberal Party promised to “meaningful levels of Canadian content” on tech companies, and the party proposed taxing foreign tech companies on the revenues they derive from Canada.
The government has to be very clear about one thing: the role of the state is not to interfere in people’s right to free speech or the freedom of the press
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Michelle Rempel Garner, Conservative innovation critic
The BTLR report recommends applying GST/HST to foreign internet companies operating in Canada, but it goes beyond that, also recommending levies or spending requirements on media companies to encourage Canadian content production.
“It is more appropriate to establish a regime that requires such online streaming services that benefit from operating in Canada to invest in Canadian programming that they believe will attract and appeal to Canadians,” the BTLR report said.
The BTLR report also suggests the CRTC be renamed the Canadian Communications Commission, and puts forward the idea of maintaining a registry of all the online services that Canadians use.
“If I was at the CRTC today, I would’ve taken a look at that and said, ‘Oh my god, you expect us to do what?” Peter Menzies, who served as CRTC vice-chair from 2013 to 2017, told the Financial Post following the report’s release.
“I think the amount of work they’ve given the CRTC is inconceivable. I think it’s probably unachievable, and I think it could be incredibly controversial.”
Conservative innovation critic Michelle Rempel Garner voiced objections to many of the BTLR recommendations immediately after the report was published. After Guilbeault spoke on Monday, she reiterated her concerns.
Rempel Garner said the the report represents an “overly bureaucratic approach” to addressing issues created by the internet, and Guilbeault’s comments left the door open to enacting many of the recommendations.
“I think the government has to be very clear about one thing: the role of the state is not to interfere in people’s right to free speech or the freedom of the press,” she said.
“What I am concerned about in what I heard was that there was ambiguity in terms of that particular concept.”