Is your content Canadian?

2016 is already shaping up to be a milestone year for Canadian talent online. Drake’s new album Views sold a record 600,000 copies in the first 24 hours of its release. In March, Justin Bieber became the first (Canadian) artist ever to hit 10 billion views on YouTube. Even the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received his own measure of viral YouTube fame when he surprised everyone with an explanation of quantum computing, garnering over 1.4 million views on the platform.

Not only are Canadians making their mark on the online realm, we also happen to be the most voracious and consummate users of digital content. The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) Factbook shows Canadians are more likely than Americans to watch online video and spend more time doing so. Seventy-four per cent of the Canadian population streams video, versus 63 per cent of people in the United States, plus we watch 43 per cent more minutes of video than our American counterparts. And when it comes to streaming our favourite tunes, more than half of Canadians claim they stream their music videos on YouTube, according to a 2015 CRTC report.

With a growing number of users ‘cutting the cord’ (or at least thinking about it) on cable services, Canada’s content providers and the Canadian government are starting to pay attention to what Canadians are watching online, and some with more trepidation than others. While Canadian users have welcomed the online world with open arms for many years, some critics would say Canada’s biggest broadcasters have been slow to embrace the digital age.

CanCon Review

On April 23, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly announced the government is undertaking a massive review of existing Canadian content (CanCon) rules. For industry watchers, this comes as an unprecedented and politically-driven process that could halt Canadian regulators’ ongoing efforts to deregulate the broadcasting and telecommunications industries in their tracks. A review of this size has not been undertaken since 1991, more than 25 years ago, before YouTube or Netflix ever existed. At the time, the lofty goal was to “encourage the development of Canadian expression by providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity.”

The review will look at overhauling the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and the Broadcasting Act to include digital content under Heritage Canada’s purview. Current Canadian content rules mandate a certain percentage of all broadcasting content must include Canadian programming and broadcast companies must contribute financially to its production. For instance, 35% of the popular music played on commercial radio stations between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. must be Canadian content — which is why you probably hear Justin Bieber and Drake more often than not on these channels.

Internet experts and advocates have largely stayed silent in the wake of the big announcement, and not because it was announced on a lazy Saturday morning. The consultations are at such an early stage and there is so little information on what the new government’s approach will be that many are taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude. Even so, some of the questions on the pre-consultation public survey are a dead giveaway that the government may be seriously considering extending CanCon to the digital world.

What we do know about the Liberal government’s digital policy is sparse. The election platform made a few token references to ‘open data’ and investing in Canada’s cultural and creative industries, but largely threw out Marc Garneau’s 2011 digital policy. The Liberal Party of Canada has traditionally been a virulent defender of CanCon rules, but in many ways, Joly has a blank slate to re-write Heritage Canada’s mandate over the CRTC.

In line with other department-wide reviews, Heritage Canada is hoping to go beyond special interests and industry players in this consultation to get at the heart of what Canadians actually expect from their digital content. In her statement, Joly pointed out: ‘We strongly believe in the importance of consulting Canadians across the country to help us shape this process.’ A grassroots approach to this review is perhaps the best way for the government to ensure average Canadians have a say on a tightly-regulated, top-down industry.

The Canadian Internet

There have been few technologies that have challenged national borders and identity the way the Internet has. After the Gutenberg press, no other system of communication has helped instigate everything from political revolutions to overnight viral cultural sensations.

Some countries have come to view the Internet with suspicion, even as a threat to political stability, or something meriting a base level of government oversight. Some have tried to put a fence around it and give it ‘national borders’, by either filtering or censoring the online content their citizens receive. All this to say, the Internet is not a uniform entity across countries. The Internet that North Americans see, or even Canadians for that matter, is very different than the one experienced in other parts of the world.

So is there a Canadian Internet?

If there was, we would need to assume it has adopted or would adopt many of the characteristics and principles we value as Canadians. For example, some would characterize the Canadian Internet as an open and equalizing tool, one that encourages innovation, creativity, and respect for diversity of identity and opinion. The Canadian Internet would not necessarily serve government or corporate interests, but those of civil society and the Canadian people writ large.

Other Internet advocates would expect fairness to be a key feature of Canada’s online landscape, where certain content would not be prioritized or blocked out over other content for political or business purposes. This principle is usually known by another name — net neutrality.

Finally, some experts would want the Canadian Internet to strike a balance between the intellectual property rights of creators and the ownership rights of consumers over the content they purchase — a nod to the fundamental tenets of the classical liberal tradition: respect for the rule of law and property rights.

A Canadian Digital Renaissance

Even if Canadians do have the power to reign in such a powerful tool and re-shape the way digital content is produced in this country, more thought must be given to the future than to the past where such regulations are concerned or merited. As they currently stand, are Canadian content rules the best way to encourage Canadian artists and innovators to flourish online in a new digital renaissance?

Looking to the experts, we can piece together some foundational answers. A 2011 joint study by the OECD, Internet Society, and UNESCO found that ‘there is a strong correlation between the development of network infrastructure and the growth of local content’. In short, countries with developed Internet infrastructure, and who reported competitive local prices for Internet access, had substantially more developed local content online. Clear laws and regulations on telecommunications and intellectual property were also important factors that could enhance local content, according to a 2014 Internet Governance Forum report, with the caveat that those same rights should not inhibit local content creation by imposing unreasonable and costly barriers to access.

What experts seem to be getting at is there is a middle ground where local content does not need to be shielded from foreign influence if there are base-level supports, such as competitively priced and developed Internet infrastructure, as well as balanced intellectual property rights. Moreover, Canadian content producers will need to focus on quality over quantity when becoming and remaining competitive online. In a world where five-second ads are symptomatic of the online user’s attention span, content creators can only succeed in a realm where they are given the tools to stand out to a wider audience, rather than have their audience narrowed for them through archaic broadcasting rules.

To some extent, the CRTC has already taken steps in de-regulating CanCon rules to help content producers find the resources to compete in the digital age. For instance, relaxing CanCon rules for daytime TV and ignoring digital content producers in the 2014 Let’s Talk TV discussions helped creators beef up their original content budgets. Even Canada’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership promises to break down market access barriers not just for foreign-produced content, but also open up new doors for made-in-Canada online forays.

At the end of the day, tightening up digital content rules in the CanCon overhaul is the least helpful avenue for ensuring the survival of Canadian content ‘that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity.’ Like many other savvy online users, Canadians have demonstrated they will be resourceful in accessing the content they want. Efforts would be better directed towards perfecting online Canadian content through a competitive market rather than shutting out the universe of creative exchange online.