This article originally appeared in the Line.
By Peter Menzies, June 21, 2022
Last week, shortly after midnight in Ottawa, the House of Commons Heritage Committee concluded its deliberations on the Online Streaming Act, which will grant a federal regulator authority over the global Internet.
You may think putting the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and its nine government-appointed commissioners in charge of the entire online world is a good thing. Or you may think it’s a bad thing. But I’m guessing we can all agree that Bill C-11, the world’s most extensive internet regulation legislation so far, is a Thing.
And you’d think a thing that big would be deserving of respectful, honest debate and thoughtful review. If there’s something in the legislation that is bad in a way that isn’t intended, you’d want it caught and fixed, right? We are, after all, about to grant authority over 21st-century communications to people in charge of something called The Broadcasting Act. An act that was passed in 1993 to make sure nothing terrible — like people preferring NFL over CFL football or the Oscars over the Genies — results from watching too much American TV. Given that thousands of successful Canadian free enterprise Tik-Tokers and YouTubers fear new rules will disadvantage them in favour of the CRTC’s certified cultural broccoli, you’d think that’d be worth a think.
But you’d be wrong.
During hearings it appeared to be difficult for Liberal MPs like Chris Bittle and Anthony Housefather to tolerate anyone not dressed in matching political uniforms. I got off relatively easy when I testified before them. All I said was that by leaving the CRTC’s mitts off the online world, investment in Canada’s film and television industry had grown by 80 per cent in the past decade. In fact, it is enjoying the greatest period of prosperity in its history, so maybe take it easy on the panic button.
Others whose testimony could have been useful were cross-examined far more aggressively in an effort to delegitimize their expertise by diminishing them personally. Vancouver’s J.J. McCullough (self-described as Canada’s 398th most popular YouTuber) was asked about an opinion he had once expressed concerning bilingualism. Former CRTC commissioner Tim Denton, now chair of the Internet Society of Canada Chapter, suddenly had to account for some of his old commentary that once appeared in the Financial Post. Producer Scott Benzie of Quixote Media and the Buffer Festival got it even worse.
Suffice to say, the experience was made unpleasant and intimidating for anyone who might have had a point of disagreement. All showed up hoping they could help and be listened to respectfully; some left feeling labelled #enemiesofthepeople. (I am not aware of any who showed up to support the legislation that were made to feel the same way but, if they did, they have my sympathy.) MPs live in a friend-or-foe world. No quarter is given, not even to passersby.
With that ugly tone set early in the deliberations and despite particularly compelling presentations by Matt Hatfield of OpenMedia and Skyship Entertainment’s Morghan Fortier, it came as no surprise the bill wound up being pushed through, literally in the middle of the night.
One of those whose advice was ignored was a man many consider Canada’s leading internet policy expert. Dr. Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa, summarized the sordid handling of the bill in a blog post.
“The result was an embarrassment to the government that leaves a stain that will not be easy to remove. Despite the absence of any actual deadline, the government insisted that just three two-hour sessions be allocated to full clause-by-clause review of the bill . . . . With roughly 170 amendments proposed by five parties, there was only time for a fraction of the amendments to be reviewed. Instead, once the government-imposed deadline arrived at 9:00 pm, the committee moved to voting on the remaining proposed amendments without any debate, discussion, questions for department officials, or public disclosure of what was being voted on. The voting ran past midnight with the public left with little idea of what is in or out of the bill.”
But not even that was the bottom of the democratic barrel. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez continued to insist that his bill doesn’t grant the CRTC authority over social media posts when it very clearly does. And he continued to get away with the same tactics for which his less fortunate colleague Marco Mendicinco has been denounced recently: misrepresenting reality.
But then Liberal MP Tim Louis of Kitchener took this government’s truth-torquing communications strategy to a breathtaking level of self-righteous fantasy — one that dripped with contempt for all but he and his clan.
He calmly rose in the House of Commons and quietly accused C-11’s critics of deliberately spreading “misinformation” — a chilling threat given the government’s plans to deal with the same in “Online Harms’ legislation later this year.
Louis did not even try to say, as did Mendicino’s deputy minister, that there was a misunderstanding of some kind. He did not attempt to make it clear that there are people who — as reasonable people often will — disagree. He did not dismiss the bill’s critics as being overwrought, incorrect and yet honourable. He stood up in the House of Commons and, barefaced, declared that views, lived experiences and legal analyses — including the testimony of CRTC Chair Ian Scott — are “simply untrue.” In other words, it’s all #fakenews.
And we are all liars.
That opprobrious gaslighting strategy and all the imperious overtones that it implies worked for Donald Trump. And, right now, it’s working just fine for those governing Canada.
Peter Menzies is a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, past vice-chair of the CRTC and a former newspaper publisher.