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MP walks back stance on media rules

Recommendations urge changes to turn CRTC into more robust agency


Toronto Star 4 Feb 2020 TONDA MACCHARLES


OTTAWA— Liberal star recruit and rookie cabinet minister Steven Guilbeault clarified Monday the Trudeau government will not move to license news media organizations as he tried to contain political damage from comments he made in a weekend interview.

Guilbeault clutched notes as he went before cameras to say a report submitted last week to the government did not recommend Ottawa regulate news media content.

However, Guilbeault’s response to that report in a CTV interview muddied the waters and became fodder for critics and right-wing groups and commentators.


It fuelled a full-on attack by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer in the House of Commons, and prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to declare Monday that, “We will not impose licensing requirements on news organizations nor will we regulate news content.”


The report from an independent panel made 97 recommendations that urged Ottawa to enact sweeping regulatory changes to the country’s broadcast, telecommunications and internet sectors, in part to require international corporations to spend more on creating Canadian content, to pay taxes on their revenue-generating activity in Canada, and to turn the CRTC into a more robust enforcement agency.


In an interview broadcast Sunday, Guilbeault was pressed to explain how Ottawa would regulate internet content providers. He pointed to regulations that already govern the broadcast sector, and suggested online content providers could be similarly regulated similarly, saying: “If you’re a distributor of content in Canada … we would ask that they have a licence, yes.” Asked if the government would block foreign news websites like Breitbart News, the New York Times or Daily Mail if they failed to comply with Canadian regulators, Guilbeault said no one has said sites should be blocked in Canada but he added, “Frankly, I’m not sure I see what the big deal is.”


He pointed to other industrial sectors where international corporations are required to comply with rules and regulations in Canada. On Monday, Guilbeaul t scrambled to walk his comments back amid charges by the Conservatives the Liberals were “Orwellian,” a “Big Brother” government that was acting like North Korea.


Trudeau and his rookie minister clarified what they won’t do. But they haven’t said what they will do.


They say Canadians will have to wait for the government’s formal response, possibly in legislation by year’s end, to see which recommendations the government will enact.

Here are a few of the report’s highlights, and the chances that recommendations by the panel, led by broadcast veteran Janet Yale, will see the light of day:

á Impose sales tax on foreign online content providers like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google


The report urges Ottawa to start charging GST/HST equitably to foreign-based online providers, such as Netflix. Quebec and Saskatchewan impose provincial sales tax on them.


“We will not impose licensing requirements on news organizations nor will we regulate news content.”


JUSTIN TRUDEAU PRIME MINISTER


Trudeau has said the government is open to a federal sales tax on such subscription-based streaming services as early as this spring’s federal budget, expected late March.

The Conservatives have long opposed any “Netflix tax” as former prime minister Stephen Harper used to call it, but in their 2019 platform the Conservatives backed unspecified measures to tax web giants. The NDP, Greens and the Bloc Québécois support different ways of taxation on web giants.


Probability this will happen? Pretty good in a minority parliament where the Liberals could count on the support of at least the Bloc or the NDP.


> Eliminate ads from the CBC/Radio-Canada. The report says ads should disappear on all CBC platforms over the next five years, starting with news content


This is a pet peeve of many private-sector broadcasters and news organizations who complain the publicly funded CBC competes with them for advertising dollars at a tough time when thousands of Canadian advertisers have switched to spending their ad budget on Facebook and Google to better target customers. The Liberals have hiked funding for the CBC and its French-language counterpart Radio-Canada in their first mandate.

In 2016, Trudeau boosted the CBC’s budget by $675 million over five years. And in the last election, the NDP and the Greens called for even more sustainable funding for the Crown corporation. Still, it would mean giving the CBC another quarter billion dollars.

According to its latest report for 2018-19, the CBC receives $1.2 billion in government funding, and generated another $490 million for its operations across all languages and platforms.


That included $249 million in advertising revenue, $31million of which came from digital advertising on its websites (and $124 million from subscriber fees).


That represents potentially about a $250-million gap for Ottawa to fill.


Probability this will happen? Possible in a minority government with support from the NDP, Bloc and Greens, and plaudits from private broadcasters and media outlets.

> Enact stronger regulations around personal information and data protection, through amendments to the telecommunications and broadcast laws


All parties support better digital protections for Canadians. The hitch is what would those protections look like. The Liberal government last spring introduced a digital charter of rights, but critics said it was preelection posturing to little effect. But the power of Big Data is a big political hot button issue.


Probability this could happen? Mixed, depending on what form it takes.

> Require media “content curators” like Netflix to contribute to Canadian content

The Liberals have long said Netflix and others should boost their production of Canadian content, but backed away from mandating it.


The report proposes several mechanisms to ensure it happens. But critics like the Conservatives, and University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist say it’s fraught with problems, including having the government too involved in regulating free speech.

Besides, Geist noted in an online blog, Netflix is already doing much to distribute good Canadian content to a global audience.


Probability this will happen? Don’t hold your breath.