Published October 9, 2023

Confusing claims about the online streaming law abound. How does it really work?

Confusing claims about the online streaming law abound. How does it really work?

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

Confusion over Canada’s Online Streaming Act is running rampant on social media, clouding debate over what the legislation actually does.

Billionaire Elon Musk, podcaster Joe Rogan and other commentators have been sharing dubious interpretations of the law to their millions of combined followers.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has repeatedly called it a "censorship law" and promised to revoke it should he become prime minister.

The fact that many of the details are still to come through regulations and ongoing consultations is also prompting questions and fuelling debate.

Here are some key things to know about the controversial legislation. 

What is the Online Streaming Act?

The Online Streaming Act, formerly known in Parliament as Bill C−11, is the Liberal government’s second attempt to bring major online streaming services into Canada’s broadcasting system, and eventually have them contribute to supporting local music and stories. 

A first version, introduced in 2020, did not pass before the 2021 election.

Traditional broadcasters have been part of this system for decades, contributing billions of dollars towards Canadian content. But broadcasting is no longer available just on TV, radio, cable, and satellite. 

Broadcasting now happens on streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Apple. It’s why you no longer need a cable subscription — or even a television — to watch live talent competitions, newscasts and sporting events. It’s why you don’t need radio to listen to music or get local news. 

Both Liberal and Conservative governments have passed laws related to broadcasting Canadian content. The last major overhaul of broadcasting law happened in 1991, under Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government, when streaming services did not yet exist.

What does the legislation do?

Right now, what exists is a framework that sets out the role and powers of Canada’s broadcasting regulator, the Canadian Radio−television and Telecommunications Commission, which operates at arm’s length from the government.

The bill says online broadcasters will be required to contribute to the creation, production, and distribution of Canadian content. It also seeks to support Indigenous content and original French−language programming.

But key aspects of the regulations that will implement this law have yet to be defined, including criteria to determine what exactly is considered Canadian content, or the level of support companies will need to provide.

When is the legislation going to take effect?

Final decisions from the CRTC about how the law is to be implemented are still years away. 

The regulator is consulting Canadians about what the new broadcasting system should look like, but has said it is not predetermining any outcomes. 

Over the next few years, it will ask Canadians to help it design the broadcasting system of the future. The CRTC said that will include a major public process next year to define what Canadian content is. 

Once a definition is in place, the CRTC says it will then start looking at streaming companies to see whether the new broadcasting rules will apply to them.

Who will fall under the legislation?

Last week, the CRTC asked services that broadcast audio or video — meaning those that could potentially be regulated under the law — to register with them by Nov. 28, a requirement already in place for large cable companies.

The demand applies to companies that make more than $10 million in annual broadcasting revenues in Canada. The CRTC wants baseline information such as the business name and address, contact information and what kinds of broadcast services the company is offering online.

Such services include streaming services, social media services, subscription TV services that are available online, radio stations that livestream on the internet and services that offer podcasts. 

The regulator went with a $10−million threshold because companies that large could be seen to have an impact on the Canadian broadcasting system.

What about content creators and social media?

The Liberal government and the CRTC have said they are not interested in content creators, whether they upload makeup tutorials, review restaurants, follow dance trends on TikTok or rage against the machine. 

Draft policy issued by the government tells the CRTC to leave out social media users, including businesses, who upload content online. 

The Department of Canadian Heritage said the act targets the kind of professional, licensed commercial content that is found in traditional broadcasting, such as TV and radio. 

It could affect social−media companies. The CRTC says that depends on whether they broadcast licensed content. For example, people who upload videos on YouTube will not be regulated, but YouTube could potentially be regulated for its commercial content.

The regulator says it recognizes that the vast majority of social−media networks do not act as broadcasters, meaning the CRTC would have no input or control over how they work. 

What about podcasts, adult content and video games?

The regulator says if something is considered trifling in terms of the overall broadcasting system, it may not even be considered by the law. For example, it does not view adult content and video games as currently affecting the system writ large.

Podcast services that make more than $10 million in annual revenue are being asked to register with the CRTC. The regulator says it expects that will end up applying to two or three companies, including Apple, Spotify and possibly CBC Listen, depending on the revenues that come specifically from podcasts. 

Not all companies being asked to register will end up being regulated. The CRTC says it wants the information so that if podcasts affect the broadcasting landscape in a big way down the line, it can get in touch with the companies and make determinations about how the law applies to them. Even then, the regulator would have to hold a public process.

Companies must self−identify. If they don’t want to comply, they can go to Federal Court, but the CRTC says most companies act in good faith to comply with the law.

Individual podcasters are not being asked to register, the CRTC says, and it cannot ask distributors of podcasts for any personal information about them. Companies that list a directory of podcasts won’t have to register, either.

The CRTC says it’s not aware of any individual in Canada who is making $10 million a year from podcasting. But even if a Canadian podcaster signed a $10−million deal, that person wouldn’t need to register and wouldn’t be regulated because only services, not users, are covered by the law.

Will the law moderate content, censor people or control speech?

The law is not concerned with social media users — not even those who criticize the prime minister. 

The CRTC says it respects Canadians’ right to freedom of expression, and people will still be able to listen to and watch the content of their choice. 

Sen. Marc Gold, the Liberal government’s representative in the Senate, told the Senate during its marathon study of the bill that the legislation "will not interfere with or stifle the expression of Canadian voices."

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