A new law that seeks to give Canadian artists a leg up online has left many influencers and tech giants alike seeing red.
They took out subway ads, they posted TikToks, but in the end, the score was Silicon Valley-0, Ottawa-1.
After many twists and turns, and over two-and-a-half years of review, the Canadian government has passed a new law that makes tech giants like YouTube and TikTok support Canadian cultural content.
The law, dubbed Bill C-11, gives the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) broad authority to regulate these platforms, much like they already do with radio and television.
The government says it is necessary to stop streaming giants from getting a free ride, and to promote local artists.
Although it’s still unclear what those final regulations will look like, the law has raised the ire of everyone from TikTokers to esteemed author Margaret Atwood.
YouTube took out ads in Toronto’s subway decrying the bill, which they said would take power away from viewers and creators put it in the hands of bureaucrats. Ms Atwood, never shy with her opinion, Some Canadian influencers have even threatened to move to the US.
So what is the new law, and why is it so controversial?
Content culture wars
With a global cultural juggernaut just south of the border, Canadians have long grappled with the issue of how to make sure that home-grown content, like music and television, does not get drowned out by the glitz and glam of its American competition.
Since the 1970s, the CRTC has been in charge of regulating broadcasters, including setting quotas for the minimum amount of Canadian content a radio or television station must play, and requiring broadcasters to spend at least 30% of their revenue producing Canadian content.
Dubbed “CanCon,” the complex system has helped boost some of the country’s biggest cultural exports, including musicians Celine Dion and Drake and sketch comedy show Kids in the Hall.
But by the 21st Century, Canadians were letting the algorithms on Spotify, YouTube and TikTok do their dial-spinning for them. These Silicon Valley imports did not have to abide by the same Canadian content rules, a loophole the government says Bill C-11 now closes.
“Online streaming has changed how we create, discover, and consume our culture, and it’s time we updated our system to reflect that,” the government said in a release.
Changing up the algorithm
From the get-go, the law has been heavily opposed by big tech platforms, like YouTube and TikTok, who lobbied the government extensively.
In a statement to the BBC, YouTube said it was “disappointed” with the legislation but “will continue to support our creators and users through the next steps in this process”.
At issue with Bill C-11 is a clause that would require streamers, including social networks like YouTube and TikTok, to “clearly promote and recommend Canadian programming, in both official languages as well as in Indigenous languages”.
Experts say it could create a system where Canadian YouTubers have to prove they are Canadian-enough to get seen.
Such a system already exists for musicians. Called the “MAPL” system, it assigns points to a song based on the nationality of its singer, producer, lyricist and other factors. The ins and outs of who is Canadian enough annoyed famous Canadian singer Bryan Adams so much that in 1992 he lamented: “You’d never hear Elton John being declared un-British.”
The advent of algorithms have only made the issue thornier. Every time users watch, like, listen or share something, that tells the algorithm more about what they like. The more people like something, the bigger an audience it gets.
But in order to promote Canadian content, platforms would have to change the algorithms.
On the surface, that sounds like it should give Canadian influencers a leg up. But some say they are afraid they will get tangled up in bureaucratic red tape, and that changes to the algorithm could hurt, rather than help.
“If they put [content] artificially in front of people who don’t want it… that will send it to the abyss,” says Scott Benzie, executive director of Digital First Canada, an organisation that represents Canadian content creators and has opposed the bill, and has received funding from YouTube.
The problem lies, he said, with what happens when content is recommended to someone based on location, not interest.
Nathan Kennedy, a TikToker who usually posts about investment advice to his 520,000 followers, has become one of the many influencers to speak out against the bill.
“I understand the premise of trying to sort of protect Canadian culture, I just think the way they’re sort of approaching it is a little bit more based on traditional media,” he said.
“It’s kind of like fitting a square into a circle peg.”
Where to draw the line
One of the biggest concerns about the law is how broad its scope was. The government rejected amendments aimed at exempting individual user content from regulation.
As for now, no one knows what those regulations look like – they will be decided in the months ahead, after the CRTC holds public consultations on how the law should be implemented.
Some, including the Conservative opposition, have accused the bill of legalising censorship.
Michael Geist, a legal scholar of the internet and privacy and noted critic of the bill, says the issue is not that it stops people from speaking their mind, but that it puts the government in charge of deciding who gets to hear those thoughts.
He said the law leaves the door wide open for CRTC overreach.
“The commission can come up with whatever regulations it wants,” he told the BBC.
Others have praised it, including the Writers Guild of Canada, which represents screenwriters, for making streamers invest in Canadian productions.
“The time has long since come for the major streaming services that benefit from the Canadian market to contribute back to it,” said Neal McDougall, WGC Assistant Executive Director, in a statement.
A world without borders – for now
Canada is not the only country contemplating regulating online content.
Watch: ‘Psychological warfare’: US politicians grill TikTok boss
Australia has unveiled a new cultural policy, expected to be introduced in May, that would include quotas for local content on streaming platforms. The UK has also considered regulations for streaming services that would protect “distinctly British” content.
Morghan Fortier, who produces videos aimed at preschool-aged children on YouTube, says she’s worried that if Canada sets the bar by prioritising home-grown content, then other countries will follow suit, which will mean smaller audiences overall.
C-11 was not the only bill the government introduced to try and regulate the internet.
Bill C-18, which is currently before the Senate, would make tech companies like Google compensate Canadian news organisations whose content appears on their platforms. The law would be similar to one passed in Australia in 2021.
The government says the law is necessary, and accuses tech giants of profiting from news while the organisations themselves lose ad revenue. But Silicon Valley has firmly opposed the move, with Google even going so far as temporarily blocking news content from 4% of Canadian users in protest.