Canadian Government Imposes Restrictive Television Speech Rules on the Internet

The Canadian government took a dramatic step to restrict the free speech rights of online streaming platforms by passing the Online Streaming Act, popularly known by our neighbors to the north as Bill C-11. This bill places most online content creators under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s far more powerful version of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). These regulations restrict the content distributed by these platforms to an arbitrary set of standards that will be determined by the CRTC.

Unlike our FCC, CRTC acts as an executive, legislative, and sometimes judicial authority without significant restraints. The CRTC prioritizes “providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and artistic creativity” and “offering information and analysis concerning Canada and other countries from a Canadian point of view.” These goals suggest that the Canadian worldview is a monolith with no diversity of thought or perspective among Canadians. If the government has an arbitrary conception of content that represents Canadian ideas, it may censor any ideas on radio, television, and now online, contradicting that perspective. The FCC used to employ a similar censorship regulatory guideline – the Fairness Doctrine – from the late 1940s to late 1980s that forced broadcast radio and television stations to offer “balanced” perspectives on “controversial topics.” However, this doctrine gave disproportionate power to bureaucrats over media companies, as the government had the ability to control the conception of neutrality, leading to an incomplete discussion of issues on television.

The bill provides broad criteria to the CRTC to regulate content viewed by Canadians on the internet, including major streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+, and YouTube. These regulations include the ability for the Commission to “make regulations respecting expenditures to be made by persons on broadcasting undertakings” for broad purposes such as “supporting broadcasting undertakings offering programming services that, in the Commission’s opinion, are of exceptional importance to the achievement of the objectives of the broadcasting policy.” This clause gives the Commission broad authority to financially support creators who align with the government’s view of the “objectives” of the broadcasting industry over others. Given the CRTC’s history, this could also mean making specific regulations to promote their preferred content. As established, these “objectives” include promoting Commission-approved “attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and artistic creativity.” This is essentially carte blanche for a government agency to subsidize content it likes and restrict content it does not, a threat to free expression by any reasonable definition.

The deferential power given to the executive allows them to issue a whole host of regulations suppressing the voices of online broadcasting undertakings if they do not fit within their arbitrary vision for the objectives of Canadian broadcasting policy. History has yet to show us a regime where ability to censor has not led directly to the censorship of views that do not align with the executive’s worldview. Just in case this broad remit is insufficient to control what information Canadians may receive, other language in the bill empowers the CRTC to consider “any other matter that may be prescribed by regulation” when making rules governing Canadian programming. This open-ended clause allows the CRTC to consider essentially any factor that it desires when regulating Canadian programs. While there are procedures that the CRTC must follow when issuing rules, like the United States, this process can be abused, ignored or neglected by authoritarian-minded government agents.

The United States luckily has allowed for a broad range of representation on its broadcasting due to its revocation of the Fairness Doctrine and hands-off approach to regulating cable and streaming services. If the United States kept outdated censorship guidelines on these distributors, popular programs such as The Sopranos, South Park, Game of Thrones, Yellowstone, and the greatest television show of all time, The Wire, likely would have never been produced. Americans should take note of these development next door and avoid reverting backwards to this Canadian model of censorship.