Never in human history have we had such access to information, nor such an ability to create information and share it with others. We can access the contents of entire libraries on our phones and view everything from works of art to theatrical productions from any location with a cellular signal.
We also have the ability to reach outward like never before. Anyone can create a video that may potentially reach thousands or even millions of people. A poem, an article, or even a digital book can be posted online where it may be read instantaneously by people anywhere in the world. The capability to widely publish and broadcast content used to be limited to large media corporations. Common folks are now empowered with the ability to communicate with and influence others around the planet, and this empowerment is making the old guard uncomfortable.
With every great human advancement there can be a downside, and the age of information is no exception. Along with unprecedented access to information, we also have more access to misinformation than ever before. Fake news is a very real problem, as rumours and falsehoods can traverse the planet unchecked. Easily shared content has made it nearly impossible to protect intellectual property and artistic creations. And cultures feel threatened as foreign entertainment content overwhelms local productions, and democratic exercises like elections have been found to be influenced by foreign powers.
The double-edged sword of unfettered communication has inspired the Canadian government to expand the ability of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) through Bill C-10. This proposed legislation would allow the CRTC to directly regulate content on digital platforms, like Netflix, with their streaming services, much as it already does with traditional broadcasters like television and radio.
Canadian Heritage official Thomas Owen Ripley told MPs at a Canadian Heritage Committee hearing in March that Bill C-10 would give the CRTC the ability to require social media platforms to make financial contributions to support Canadian content, as well as impose programming standards and reporting requirements. Then in April, the committee updated the bill to remove a clause that exempted user-generated online content, such as YouTube videos posted by individuals. This removed the previous clarity that such content on social media platforms isn’t considered “programming” and therefore is not subject to federal regulation.
Following an outcry from critics concerned that this amounted to an attack on free speech and expression, in early May Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin proposed an amendment to C-10 that would impose limits on the CRTC’s ability to regulate user-generated content. However, it would still regard that type of content as programming and allow the regulator to force social media platforms to promote Canadian content to users.
That amendment may fail, but it has exposed the zeal with which some regulators want to come after small, independent content creators. While unregulated internet content may be presenting some troublesome issues, the legislative cure will be much worse than the disease if Bill C-10 passes.
With empowerment comes responsibility, and a troubling number of people appear willing to abdicate both to the state. A generation of peace has made us complacent. While voices on every side of the political spectrum are speaking out about the risks posed by Bill C-10, this issue hasn’t been gaining much traction in the public spectrum. Our fantastic, unhindered access to unregulated online content is being threatened, and citizens are responding with little more than an apathetic shrug. Many feel that giving up aspects of free speech and expression will be less troublesome than having to sift through content and determine merit by oneself. This is a very dangerous place for society to be in.
While today’s government may give assurances that it won’t infringe on people’s freedom of speech, can we be confident that this promise will be kept, or that future governments will keep the same promise? How would we be able to protect ourselves from a government with nefarious intentions, when the government controls our ability to communicate and express ourselves? History should have taught us by now that the assumption of state goodwill is often misplaced. We should never for a second consider relinquishing fundamental rights such as speech and expression—yet we are on the brink of doing just that.
Opposition to Bill C-10 should transcend party lines. The duty toward citizens should come first for legislators as they consider ratifying this bill. While Canadians at large appear to be oblivious to the consequences of Bill C-10, our elected officials should be well aware that the bill places unacceptable limitations upon free speech and expression. It is their duty to oppose this bill on behalf of the citizens who won’t stand up and do it for themselves.
We have become fatigued by state incursions upon our individual rights. We have passively, trustingly, and hopefully only temporarily allowed a number of Charter rights to be suspended in the name of pandemic control. We can’t let ourselves get into the habit of giving up our rights easily. Eventually, we will realize that we want those rights back. If we have given up our fundamental rights to free speech and expression, it will be nearly impossible to organize in order to regain the rest of our rights.
Free speech has been taken for granted. Many Canadians may not understand just how important those rights are, but we can rest assured that aspiring authoritarians do. Let’s hope our legislators do the right thing and stop Bill C-10 in its tracks.