By Ian Croft
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
With Bill C-11 in the House of Commons again after failing to pass the approval of the Senate, Martin Shields MP for Bow River rose in the House to air his grievances with the bill.
“It is an interesting debate today, and I rise to speak on Bill C-11,” said Shields on March 27. “I was here for Bill C-10, which went on until the Liberals finally realized it was problematic, shipped it off to the Senate and called an election because they knew they had a bad piece of legislation. The Internet is an interesting place, but the expression of opinions has been going on for a long time. I do not know if anybody in this House has been to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. People can stand there and express any opinion they want. There are libel laws in the Criminal Code; we understand that. However, people can stand on that corner and express their viewpoints. There is no censorship and no control. If they attract an audience, the audience might like to listen. If they do not attract an audience, so be it, but they still have the opportunity to do that.”
Shields continued on by connecting this idea of Speakers’ Corner to the Internet as a whole, as well as establishing how the Internet is so interconnected in this day and age.
“In 1989, the World Wide Web was introduced as a tool for communication and connection, for the free flow of information no matter where one was located. One did not have to be on Speakers’ Corner but could be anywhere in the world. According to Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with founding the Internet, the web was a universal linked information system that ‘evolved into a powerful ubiquitous tool because it was built on…principles and because thousands…have worked…to expand its capabilities based on those principles.’ That is how the modern-day inventor of this particular tool stated it. Since then, it has exploded. At least five billion people in the world are using it. I remember being on a corner in Beijing, China, and the street vendor selling a watermelon was using the Internet. It has exploded around the world. It can be used to shop, browse and communicate freely. It can be used for anything one wants at just about the click of a button. This is the power of the Internet.”
With this framework of the Internet established, Shields then went on to present his first complaint, that the government is not listening to Canadians when it comes to this bill.
“The government wants Bill C-11 to level the playing field, but I do not think this is the leveller. Despite what the government says, Bill C-11 would change the way Canadians interact with the Internet, and I do not agree with the how. Bill C-11 flies directly in the face of the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition Charter. The charter talks about the right to network equality, ‘universal and open access to the Internet’s content, free from discriminatory prioritisation, filtering or traffic control on commercial, political or other grounds.’ It talks about the right to accessibility and expression, ‘the right to seek, receive, and impart information freely on the Internet without censorship or other interference.’ However, the heritage minister has continued to stonewall against some of our concerns. As Conservatives brought forward amendments that people were sharing with us, the government did not accept them and then went to the Senate after ignoring the amendments we wanted to make. Unfortunately, Bill C-11 stands in the way of Canadian innovation and tells Canadian creators that their aspirations can only be achieved with the help of the government. There is a phrase: ‘I’m here to help you. I’m from the government.’ In my world, I tell people to run now and run like hell. When somebody from the government says they are here to help, people should run.”
Shields then pointed out that if the government wants to be concerned about the Internet they should then be focusing on providing it to more people.
“For decades, the Canadian arts and cultural sectors have reached global audiences without government choosing the next success story,” said Shields. “In my riding, as in many rural ridings, over 40 per cent of the people do not have access to broadband. The Auditor General stated that less than 60 per cent of rural Canadians have broadband access. Maybe that is what the Liberals should be working on, not controlling the Internet. When there are people in Canada who do not even have reliable Internet, we should be looking at that. However, the crux of Bill C-11 culminates in what the government has been doing since it took office. It wants to spend, regulate and control more. Enter Bill C-10 (the old Act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts) and then Bill C-11 to mandate the CRTC to regulate the Internet.”
From here Shields pointed out a handful of other concerns that he has with the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), and also touched on his desire to not have the CRTC’s reach expanded.
“I have been on the heritage committee for a long time. There was a report with a recommendation that people should only be board members on the CRTC if they lived in the 613 area code. That was the Yale report recommendation. I am not sure about the CRTC when people have to live in Ottawa to be on the board. Often during committee we heard that the CRTC was the only organization capable of achieving such a wide regulatory order. This bill would lead to the addition of even more government employees and costs, which would be significant whether done in-house or contracted out. It would be a huge cost. Not only would the scope of the CRTC reach Canadian radio waves and TV screens, but now it would also reach the Internet.”
After this Shields also took a moment to point out how the Canadian Parliament already had this discussion by quoting a MP from 1997.
“In 1997, a former Liberal MP, the Hon. Roger Gallaway, said: ‘[T]he Internet is the system linking computers all over the world, allowing the free flow of information. Now the new chair of the CRTC…has stated that her commission intends to regulate the Internet to ensure adequate levels of Canadian content. If information is flowing freely how and why is [the commissioner] going to measure its Canadiana? Rather than spend our money in such a fashion perhaps a suggestion of redirecting her cash to libraries, book publishing or literary programs would be infinitely more meaningful. Regulating the flow of information is in a historical sense an extraordinarily dangerous step. I would suggest that regulating the flow of information is in fact censorship. As parliamentarians I suggest that we stop the CRTC’s flight of fancy before it takes one further step.’ Does it sound familiar? History repeats itself, this time at the behest of the government. In 1997, when the Internet was but a fraction of what it is today, the concerns of regulatory censorship in what is Canadian content was being raised by the Liberals.”
Shields also pointed out how certain films that seem like they would easily qualify as Canadian content are not regarded as such by the CRTC.
“More recently, Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley adapted a screenplay from a novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews,” said Shields. “She won an Oscar for her film Women Talking. Will the CRTC acknowledge that this production qualifies as Canadian content? Whether productions have significant involvement by Canadians is not considered by the CRTC to qualify as Canadian content. Turning Red is a Pixar film written and directed by a Canadian, set in Canada and with Canadian characters. Does it count? No, it does not; it is not Canadian. Under Bill C-11, that decision would fall to cabinet, its order in council, the governor. Yes, that is the one that says they are going to give the directions to the CRTC. I do not think any party should be making those decisions and directing the CRTC.”
Shields then hammered home how the Liberal government seems to continue to ignore the concerns of both the Senate and Canadians with this bill.
“At least the previous Bill C-10, a bill that died in the last Parliament, included an explicit exemption for user-generated content. However, then the Liberals removed it from their own bill. Members of the government realized they would not be able to tighten the grip on Canadians’ viewing habits should that exemption remain. Therefore, they tried again with Bill C-11 and told Canadians not to worry but to trust them. That is another phrase. It gets scary when somebody says, ‘Trust me’. A careful examination revealed complicated ways in which they can still be regulated. The Senate introduced an amendment intended to explicitly rule out user-generated non-commercial content, but the government rejected that too. The Liberals rejected the Senate, Canadians and the exemption. That must say it all.”
To finish off his speech Shields also pointed out how this bill will give the CRTC the ability to screen what content comes up when people are browsing the Internet on major platforms.
“As Canadians’ foremost expert on Internet and copyright law, Dr. Michael Geist said, ‘For months, [the Minister of Heritage] has said ‘platforms in, users out’…. We now know this was false. By rejecting the Senate amendment, the government’s real intent is clear: retain the power to regulate user content. Platforms in, user content in.’ If the CRTC is given this mandate, it may direct social media platforms and streaming services to develop the algorithms to favour and disfavour based on a certain criterion, but one we do not know. No one but the government knows. The screening occurs through discoverability. When one opens a browser on a platform, such as YouTube or Facebook, such results would be screened artificially based on a CRTC directive. This needs to stop.”