Online streaming bill won’t police user-generated content, algorithms: CRTC chair

Online streaming bill won't police user-generated content, algorithms: CRTC chair
Photo credit: Ron Lach/Pexels

The chair of Canada’s broadcasting regulator says a controversial online streaming bill will not result in the policing of user-generated content or the mandating of specific algorithms on platforms.

Ian Scott told the Senate committee studying the bill on Wednesday that his previous comments about the federal Liberals’ controversial online streaming legislation, Bill C-11, were “taken out of context.”

The bill is an attempt to bring Canada’s broadcasting rules into the 21st century by creating a policy framework that would apply for the first time to giants such as YouTube, TikTok and Spotify.

Scott had previously suggested at a meeting of the same committee that the CRTC could require platforms to “manipulate” their algorithms to produce certain results — a statement that all three companies raised as a serious concern in their own parliamentary testimony.

“Unfortunately, my previous remarks have been taken out of context by some witnesses that have appeared before you,” Scott told senators.

“The CRTC’s objective is to ensure that Canadians are made aware of Canadian content and that they can find it. It is not about manipulating algorithms,” he said. “What the bill will not do is allow the CRTC to mandate the use of specific algorithms or source code to achieve the objective of promotion and discoverability. And we have no issue with that limitation.”

Scott added that any regulatory obligations put on online platforms would be subject to public consultations first. That would include the definition of “Canadian content,” which he said should evolve over time.

Asked whether the bill’s Canadian content rules mean that the regulator will be looking to push the content on Canadian users, he said: “The CRTC is not, has not, and will not be trying to direct what consumers watch.”

He said it’s not about making Canadians eat — it’s about making sure that there are Canadian dishes in front of them.

Scott acknowledged during a question-and-answer period with senators that a platform could choose to change its algorithm as one way to meet their new obligations.

But he said there are other ways to achieve the legislation’s goals, and these could include internal or external ad campaigns, curated lists or promotional reels, he said.

Amid concerns that the bill leaves room for the CRTC to regulate user-generated content, Scott said there is no intention to do so.

CRTC Chair Ian Scott waits to appear before the Heritage Committee on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. The chair of Canada’s broadcasting regulator says a controversial online streaming bill will not result in the policing of user-generated content or the mandating of specific algorithms on platforms. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

“The CRTC is not being given the power to regulate individual users in relation to the content they create,” he said. “And I wish to assure you and Canadians more broadly that the CRTC has no intention of regulating individual TikTokers, YouTubers or other digital content creators.”

But some senators pushed back, saying that a lack of clarity in the bill could leave room for future CRTC officials to interpret the act differently. As the bill is written, there is no explicit prohibition on the regulation of such content.

Scott repeated that the CRTC is “not interested” in conducting such regulation and “it makes no sense,” even if there is jurisdiction.

As senators suggested various amendments to the bill that would address concerns, Scott made it clear that he was “not trying to defend the legislation.”

“That’s the job of the minister and the department,” he said. “It is for you as lawmakers to decide on the ultimate content, not me.”

Asked whether it’s important for legislation to be clear so that the affected stakeholder community has clarity, Scott answered: “Yes.”

Several senators asked about a provision in the bill that some critics are concerned would give the government extraordinary new powers to influence how the bill is applied.

Scott insisted that the CRTC is independent and he doesn’t think that the government discretion would apply to its individual rulings. “There is a very bright line. I have never and I will never discuss a matter in front of us with a minister or anyone else,” he said.

But Scott said provisions in the bill do move the balance point “slightly closer to lessening the independence” of the regulator, and it’s up to senators whether they think amendments are a good idea.

“This commission is arm’s length. I guess you can put it as ‘how long are the arms.’ And I’d prefer as a regulator to have them as long as possible.”

Marie-Danielle Smith/The Canadian Press

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