For some time now I have been tweeting and organizing resistance to Bill C-10. This has kept me busy in my personal capacity, as it were, and Dalwhinnie has had to take back seat to my public-facing self.
I have learned or been reminded of several truths in the course of the past few weeks, but first let me tell you about the bill.
There are two modes of communications, legally speaking. On the one hand, there are speech and writing, film production, and others which occur without prior permission from the state. You write what you want and assume responsibility after publication for slander, criminal conspiracy, obscenity, and other legal liabilities. Then there is that creature of the twentieth century, called broadcasting, which requires a licence from the state. You broadcast under conditions established for a particular class of speaker, one who is assumed to be few in number talking to hundreds of thousands who are limited in their choice of “stations”. This was the original rationale for broadcasting regulation, few-to-many, one way and which used airwaves that interfered with one another unless carefully assigned by central authority.
It will be readily understood that every advance of electronic communications has served to increase the number of stations, from three to seven to thirty to fifty, to the Internet. The internet has exploded the number of speakers into the millions, or tens of millions. With new forms of addressing, such as IPv6, the number of “stations” will be in the trillions.
Despite this, Canadian law still treats the Internet as a form of “broadcasting”, a licensable activity that for thirty years the government had the wisdom not to touch. Previous CRTC decisions had said that regulating the Internet as broadcasting was superfluous and unneeded. These decisions of the CRTC claimed jurisdiction over the Internet but did not exercise it.
Now that restraint has been overthrown. In a search for revenue from web giants, and egged on by the Canadian cultural organizations – the ones who feed on television productions subsidies – the government, led by the Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbault, has plunged recklessly into a gigantic extension of federal authority over communications.
Bill C10, which is a series of amendments to the Broadcasting Act, would treat
- all websites
- all user-generated uploads to social media sites
as “broadcasting”, that is, occasions where you could be regulated by the CRTC. The difference is that, in the case of user generated content uploaded to platforms, you would not be the broadcaster, the platform would be the broadcaster. This would outsource government control and censorship to the large platforms, who would act under CRTC or other government regulations.
This website, and all others, commercial, artistic, political, would be treated as broadcasting if they were “predominantly” -word undefined – audio-visual rather than printed in nature. It is not difficult to imagine that by bit count alone, and by inclusion of a few video inserts, a newspaper would become a “broadcaster”, in the same way that a podcaster is now, according to this Bill, a radio station.
It reaches the absurdity of a zoom call among church attendees being considered broadcasting, and subject to federal regulation. Will “balance” in religious programming be imposed on church services? Will the imam share time in the pulpit? If you think this is absurd, you don’t know the CRTC.
The authors of C10 are seeking to jam the internet into the form of broadcasting, rather than make broadcasting conform to the Internet.
It is readily evident that a large number of issues will remain undecided by the bill itself and that years of hearings and lawsuits will ensue, including challenges to the constitutionality of the bill, on several grounds.
But back to the tweetstorm.
The public debate on this bill took a while to get started, for several reasons. The first is that members of Parliament are not clever lawyers on the whole, and it took them a while to scope out the extent of the government’s ambitions. Both the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP favour large public subsidies to their unionized buddies in the TV production industry. The Liberals favour their own guy and they are not averse to totalitarian controls on the Internet, it seems. That left the Conservatives to slowly appreciate that the Liberals had handed them a major electoral campaign issue if they wanted it. They finally realized what the bill meant to ordinary Canadians. And ordinary Canadians are waking up.
This state of affairs was changed only by professors of communications, like Michael Geist, members of the Internet Society of canada, and former CRTC commissioners such as Peter Menzies, Konrad von Finckensten and Timothy Denton to write op-eds in papers until the latter woke up to the notion that they would become “broadcasters” if this bill passed. Open Media got involed and that meant that the political left started to agitate against it. As one wit said of the left-right alliance on C10: “we want to be able to shout at each other without the state refereeing.”
The ignorance of the press on this issue has been astounding, if you were not already cynical about their capacity to understand issues. They had to be told in black and white what the Act said, and even then they still hesitated to get it.
The opinion battle among the elites has taken place principally on Twitter. Throughout, the motives of those opposed to the Bill have been questioned. Vast conspiracies have been imagined by the proponents of the bill, sponsored by the likes of Google and Facebook. It has not occured to them that people could actually freely spend time opposing the bill because of principled concerns for freedom of speech. If you speak only for money, it comes as a shock that people will speak and write for no money at all.
Not once have the arguments of the opponents of the bill ever been frontally addressed. Not once. The Minister has been reduced to blithering incoherence on several occasions by being asked factual questions about what the Bill plainly says. It is as if he had not read his own bill, or did not understand it. A reasoned defence of the Bill has been missing. It might have been attempted, but was not, largely because to address the issues would be to deal with some real concerns that the bill’s proponents would rather not discuss.
The TV production and other recipients of cultural largesse in Canada have only tweeted their unanimous support for C10. (Canada spens about as much money on cultural subsidies overall as we spend on the Candain navy). The French Canadians, it would appear, have no concerns for freedom of speech, and seem not to understand what English Canadians are going on about. Their confidence in a federal institution, the CRTC, to decide matters of cultural concern to them, appears to be unbounded. We are confidently told by those who feel they understand Quebec that even to raise these concerns with them is a provocation.
Normally a story has a two or three day run. The C10 issue has occupied weeks of media attention, and won’t go away because it constitutes an immense assault upon historic rights of free speech won by revolutions and bloodshed in the 17th and 18th centuries, revolutions that passed French Canada by. It remains to be seen whether the Liberals have handed the Conservatives a winning election issue or not. But if enough people say they will die on this hill, not even the federal Liberals can overcome the resolve of the nation.