Canadian lawmakers passed a controversial Bill C-10 that aims to regulate programming distributed by media streaming services and social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, a measure that critics warn could infringe on individual speech.

The legislation drafted by Justin Trudeau’s government, known as Bill C-10, is meant to subject tech giants to the same requirements as traditional broadcasters. Effectively compelling companies like Netflix Inc. and TikTok Inc. to finance and promote Canadian content.

It’s among the most far-reaching plans by governments anywhere to regulate the algorithms tech companies use to amplify or recommend content.

The Act to Amend the Broadcasting Act could affect individual expression on social media and other digital platforms that rely on user-generated content.

It’s unclear whether the bill will become law, however. The legislation needs to win passage through the Senate. The process could be pre-empted by an election later this year that would effectively kill the bill. If that happens, a new government would have to put it through the legislative mill again.

Heritage Minister, Steven Guilbeault, said during the final debate Monday evening that “there are other issues we have to address when it comes to broadcasting and creation, and we will”.

Bill C-10

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who introduced Bill C-10 in the House in November 2020

The Purpose Of The Bill

Governments around the world are grappling with how to modernize their legal frameworks. They want to account for the global reach of the digital economy. It’s reshaping how policymakers think about issues as varied as monopoly power, taxation, and worker rights.

In Canada, an additional worry is how to protect domestic cultural industries. More Canadians turn to internet companies for music and video programming, which is the focus of the new law.

Stunting the influence of U.S. culture, in particular, is a core principle of modern Canadian media law. For decades the government has required radio and television broadcasters to produce and distribute local content.

A regulatory body known as the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) certifies what is and what is not Canadian. It can also issue fines for violations starting at C$250,000 or even suspend a broadcaster’s license to operate. The new law would give the CRTC that same kind of power over internet companies.

Bill C-10

The challenge is how to regulate content on the internet without undermining individual freedom of expression. The bill’s language is ambiguous on this point, according to its critics. Some of it can be interpreted as saying that user activity won’t be regulated. Other parts suggest that content produced on user-driven sites will be.

The bill would effectively add three requirements for digital media companies: They must provide information about their revenue sources, give a portion of their profits to a fund to support Canadian content, and increase the visibility or “discoverability” of Canadian content. It would be the first modernization of the country’s broadcasting legislation since 1991.