Dec. 17, 2019

The Liberal government wants streaming companies like Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime to have a more Canadian flavour to binge watching sessions, with a requirement for more Canadian content expected to be part of legislation introduced next year.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has been directed to bring new rules to streaming companies that will force them to put Canadian content upfront.

Guilbeault has been tasked to “introduce legislation by the end of 2020 that will take appropriate measures to ensure that all content providers, including internet giants, offer meaningful levels of Canadian content in their catalogues.”

They should also be making Canadian content easily accessible on their platforms and contribute to funds for making more Canadian content.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault Blair Gable/Reuters/File

Currently, 50 per cent of the programming Canadian broadcasters air between 6 p.m. and midnight must be Canadian. There are no specific rules for streaming services and the mandate letter doesn’t specify what the government views as an acceptable number.

The instructions are included in Guilbeault’s mandate letter sent to him last week.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, who holds the Canada Research chair in internet law, said whether streaming giants push back against the new regulations will depend on the details.

He said a requirement that three per cent of the shows be Canadian would not be hard for streaming giants to hit, but if the number is 30 per cent companies would be forced to either shrink their catalogues or make a lot of bad television.

Netflix and other streaming giants already make many of their productions in Canada, so Geist said the government should also consider looking at the definition of what is Canadian content. Right now, a Canadian content definition requires a Canadian company to oversee production and they then get points for having Canadians in key roles like writer, director or lead actor.

“You could take the new Margaret Atwood book and produce it as a TV show or film and the fact that Margaret Atwood wrote it would be irrelevant,” said Geist.

He said if the government is going to require more Canadian content it should think about how it defines it.

“The problem with that is our existing definitions of what is Canadian content, don’t actually result in more Canadian content at all.”

David Sparrow, president of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) said Canada has always protected its culture, because airwaves are a public good and he said extending this to streaming services makes sense.

“We have been the owner of our airwaves and I certainly and I think ACTRA also sees the internet as just another pipeline,” he said.

The industry has never been healthier Sparrow said, but much of the work being done is for streaming services and it can make it more difficult for small Canadian productions to find studio space or other equipment.

He said it’s worth looking at the current content rules, but when productions are required to have Canadian actors, directors or writers as part of their production, they tend to tell Canadian stories.

“That content is important to defining Canada and giving us a voice on the international stage,” he said.

Netflix signed a deal with the Canadian government in 2017 to invest $500 million over five years. At the time, the government said it would not require it to pay into content creation funds or charge GST. That deal was panned in Quebec because it had no requirement for the company to produce French-language programming.

The mandate letter also calls for Guilbeault to create new regulations for social media companies, requiring them to take down “illegal content” including hate speech within 24 hours or face significant fines.

“This should include other online harms such as radicalization, incitement to violence, exploitation of children, or creation or distribution of terrorist propaganda,” reads the mandate letter.

A Facebook spokesperson said there are open to a conversation about the issue and already take significant steps to police their platform.

Geist said he sees several potential issues with these rules, including that only large social media companies will be able to respond to these demands. He said that could mean big companies like Facebook or Twitter don’t face challenges from startups.

“It is entrenching that power even further, because it is only those large players that could comply,” he said.

Original Source: National Post, Ryan Tumilty