Same Pig, Different Lipstick: Bill C-11

Last year, I wrote about Bill C-10, which was concerned with “compelling companies like Netflix Inc and TikTok Inc to finance and promote Canadian content.” The Bill was controversial, not least because the law could be read to target content produced on user-driven sites (TikTok, say) targeting individual content creators rather than the tech giants and subjecting them to discoverability requirements and penalties. One of the biggest concerns was free expression. This law could be read to grant Canada’s telecom and broadcast regulator (the CRTC) power to regulate the content of individual expressions, something that—to many of us—presented constitutional and regulatory concerns. As Professor Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa stated upon the tabling of the bill, it “hands massive new powers to Canada’s telecom and broadcast regulator (the CRTC) to regulate online streaming services, opening the door to mandated Cancon payments, discoverability requirements, and confidential information disclosures, all backed by new fining powers.” 

Bill C-10 died because of the election, and some of us thought that would be the end of this. Not so. Yesterday the Trudeau Government re-introduced the same pig with different lipstick: Bill C-11. Professor Geist has led the charge on this and I would direct you to his site for deep analysis of the Bill, but for now, it’s enough to say that this Bill is generally not an improvement on its predecessor, at least from the perspective of the power it vests in the CRTC. Its central problem is hinging the entire controversy of the Bill on a clause which allows the CRTC to decide when and to whom the Act applies, subject to some exceptions. This should be, if not constitutionally problematic, politically so: this is the power to expand the scope of the law to a large class of individual users, allowing the Government to evade responsibility for this controversial choice in Parliament. In other words, the Government still has power to regulate user generated content and subject that content to discoverability regulations and users to potential penalties. It has this power despite the Bill representing that it does not.

Let’s take a look at the Backgrounder for the Bill. The Government says that this Bill solves two problems with Bill C-10. First, “it captures commercial programs regardless of how they are distributed, including on social media services.” Second, “the proposed bill is also clear that the regulator does not have the power to regulate Canadians’ everyday use of social media, including when they post amateur content to these services.” It seems, then, that the proposed bill does not apply to Canadian users or individual creators. And the opening part of the actual text of the Bill sounds promising. It says that it must be construed and applied in a manner that is consistent with “(a) the freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence enjoyed by broadcasting undertakings.” Section 4.1 (1) of the Bill sounds even better: “This Act does not apply in respect of a program that is uploaded to an online undertaking that provides a social media service by a user of the service for transmission over the Internet and reception by other users of the service.” This seems to deal with the problem so many of us had with Bill C-10 when it purported to extend its scope to the average TikTok user.

This sounds like a real improvement. But the promise fades when we consider the CRTC’s new regulation-making power. A regulation is a form of law—the power to make regulations is given to an agency by the elected legislature. This isn’t itself inherently problematic, and of course regulation-making is widespread today. But this goes further. Section 4.1(2) of the Bill basically “takes back” s.4.1(1), when it gives the CRTC power to make regulations governing “programs” despite the seeming exclusion of user content. This is something approaching–if it isn’t already–a Henry VIII clause, which allows an agency to amend a primary law (h/t Leonid Sirota for raising this point). If not constitutionally problematic, it is politically so. It allows the Government to evade responsibility for the potentially vast scope of this law.

This is the controversial clause. It is cabined by a few factors, namely s.4.2 (2) (a) which directs the CRTC to consider “the extent to which a program, uploaded to an online undertaking that provides a social media service, directly or indirectly generates revenues” as it makes regulations. As Professor Geist notes, the target here appears to be YouTube music. But there are many other types of user-generated content that could conceivably fall under the scope of the law, including user generated TikTok videos or podcasts that indirectly generate revenue and have other features that fall within the scope of the regulation-making power.

The end result, as Professor Geist says, is that this technical change “would likely capture millions of TikTok and YouTube videos.” In his post on the Bill, he summarizes the wide berth of power granted to the CRTC in Bill C-11:

Views on the scope of this regulatory approach may vary, but it is undeniable that: (1) regulating content uploaded to social media services through the discoverability requirement is still very much alive for some user generated content; (2) the regulations extend far beyond just music on Youtube; (3) some of the safeguards in Bill C-10 have been removed; and (4) the CRTC is left more powerful than ever with respect to Internet regulation.

Taking into account alternative views on the scope of the Bill, I agree. The Bill basically downloads the real decision-making a level down. Rather than the Government taking responsibility for regulation user content in this fashion, it will grant it to the “independent” CRTC. If there is controversy about a future regulation, the Government can shift responsibility to the CRTC. The regulation-making just reinforces this, granting a power to the CRTC to expand the scope of the law and to make the decisions Parliament should be making in plain view.

Others will differ. They could say that I am discounting the CRTC’s own democratic process. Or, one might say that the statute cabins the regulation-making power, and that the income-generation factor is one, non-exhaustive factor. Maybe they’d be right. But I think I could grant all of this and still maintain that the Bill purports to grant significant power to the CRTC to apply the law to users, something the Backgrounder suggests it does not. This disparity concerns me.

It is important here to address another possible response. Much is made in administrative law about the need to empower regulatory experts to make decisions in the public interest. So far as this goes, the device of delegation could be useful. But it is not always and everywhere so, and there are differences in kind. A delegation to the CRTC here may be justifiable, but the Government should take responsibility for the choice to regulate user content. Presumably, this should be something that—if it needs to be addressed—should be addressed in the primary law, rather than by the CRTC in its own wide, relatively unconstrained discretion. In other words, if Youtube music is the problem, the law should be appropriately tailored.  And the use of something like a Henry VIII clause is ill-advised, to say the least.

The basic problem here might be more fundamental. I am candidly not sure what the need for this Bill is, particularly the targeting of user content. It seems the regulatory goal here may be to subject the Act’s requirements to users who generate a certain income, for example, and among other things. If that is the regulatory goal, why is the CRTC regulatory mechanism desirable here? If the Government wants to make this policy choice, why can’t it do so in the plain view?  Perhaps I simply do not understand the CanCon-motivated reason why this particular power is justified.  I’m open to someone explaining to me what I might be misunderstanding here—perhaps something specific to this regulatory context.

Nonetheless, I think there are real democratic tradeoffs to the use of this sort of regulation-making power, and more specifically the deflection of responsibility to the CRTC. This is a controversial application of a regulatory law—with penalties—to a potential huge class of users. Not only does the Government purport not to do this, but it does it here with a delegation to the CRTC. If later challenged, the Government can simply defer to the CRTC.  I do not see this legal device—and this Bill—as any better than Bill C-10.

Bill C-10 and the CRTC Debacle

Does it get much worse?

Bill C-10 has passed the House of Commons. For those unaware, the bill nominally involves “compelling companies like Netflix Inc and TikTok Inc to finance and promote Canadian content.”  Experts, like the University of Ottawa’s Michael Geist, are concerned about the far-reaching impacts of this law. The concerns mostly revolve around the idea that the government’s law may reach content produced on user-driven sites, targeting individual content creators rather than the “tech giants” that are the nominal targets of the law.

I agree with Professor Geist. I share deep worries about the chilling effect this, and other measures the government is introducing, will have on free expression. But that isn’t my area of interest or expertise, for the purposes of today. Instead, whatever the content of the law, no one can gainsay Professor Geist’s conclusion, upon the tabling of the bill, that it “hands massive new powers to Canada’s telecom and broadcast regulator (the CRTC) to regulate online streaming services, opening the door to mandated Cancon payments, discoverability requirements, and confidential information disclosures, all backed by new fining powers.” The wide-reaching delegation of power will, as is common in administrative settings, be used by the CRTC to the hilt. We should expect nothing different, and we should therefore be disappointed that Canada’s government did all it can to prevent the legislature from taking a hard look at this bill.

In Canada, most of our discussions of administrative law are synonymous with discussions of judicial review. That is, we tend to view the law of judicial review as the same as administrative law. The focus of most Canadian administrative law academics (myself included) is on the stuff of judicial doctrine; standards of review, procedural fairness, etc etc. But, in other jurisdictions, like the United States, legislatures and courts have indicated an interest in controlling administrative power themselves. The United States’ Administrative Procedure Act, despite its flaws, is at least a legislative indication that the administrative state can and should be controlled by the legislative standards regarding adjudication and rule-making.

No such interest evidently exists in Canada, as the Bill C-10 debacle shows.  Put aside, for the moment, the rather emaciated Statutory Instruments Act (see Neudorf, here for problems with this statute at 562 et seq, and my paper, here, for more). The efforts by the government (and other abettors) to do anything—whatever the optics—to limit debate and amendment of the bill are unfortunate:

All bills, no matter their consequences, should be subject to robust debate, in both Parliament and the public forum more generally. But this law, in particular, is troubling from an administrative law perspective. Parliament’s inability to even fully debate—let alone control—the mass discretion passed to the CRTC should worry all Canadians.

I accept the legitimacy of the administrative state, parasitic as it is on delegated power. But that’s the rub—the power is delegated, and amenable to control by the delegator. The legitimacy question is quite aside from the need for the formal, constitutional actors in our system (the legislatures, specifically) to fully and frankly debate the policy and legal implications of broad delegated power. In fact, legislatures may be the only ones with the power to do this in our constitutional order. Despite strong arguments to the contrary (see Justice Côté’s opinion in the GHG Reference and Alyn Johnson’s excellent paper here), I am not convinced that courts can pass on the constitutionality (let alone the policy implications) of the scope of broad delegated power. While courts are the only “independent” guardians of the Constitution (see Ell, at paras 3, 23), that does not mean that legislatures should bar themselves from considering the legalities and policy implications of their delegations.

It gives me no comfort that judges of the Supreme Court and commentators has referred to the CRTC as the “archetype” of an expert tribunal (see the opinion of Abella and Karakatsanis JJ in Bell Canada, at para 64; see also B. Kain, “Developments in Communications Law: The 2012-2013 Term—The Broadcasting Reference, the Supreme Court and the Limits of the CRTC” (2014) 64 SCLR (2d) 63). While it is certainly true that “we simply do not know what the typical bureaucratic objective function looks like” (see Gersen, here, at 335), there is clearly a risk that “[d]elegation can create iron triangles of policymakers insulated from public control…” (Gersen, at 345). This is even more apposite where the mandates that are implemented by administrative actors are vague and general, as they often are. While expertise may be a valid reason for delegation, there is an inevitable trade-off involved in delegating power to experts—there is always a risk of bureaucratic drift, or expansion of delegated mandates. The worry is multiplied when the legislature indicates little interest in debating the merits of delegated power. Indeed, perhaps the legislature has no incentive to control delegated power, except for the incentives provided by constitutional principles.

 And here, the CRTC has been given delegated power a country mile wide. As Geist noted on the tabling of the bill, many of the specifics of the bill’s new concept of “online undertakings” will be left to the regulator. For example, the third reading of the bill does not unambiguously say that it does not apply to users.  Much will be left in the hands of the CRTC through its regulation-making powers. We will not know the extent to which the market and users will be affected until the CRTC begins using its new-found powers.

Now, because of the parliamentary calendar, it does not appear  that the Senate will be able to pass the bill in time. This is good news, but it seems more fortuitous than anything. More of this vast delegated power appears on the horizon for other agencies, like the Canadian Human Rights Commission. A rigorous public will need to step in where the government has made it impossible for the legislature to fully examine the proposed law.

Making a Monster

A report on the future regulation of the internet proposes giving the CRTC overwhelming and unaccountable powers

The final report of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel, grandly entitled Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act (the “BTLR Report”) has already attracted its share of commentary, much of it, but by no means all, sharply critical. As Michael Geist has explained, the report articulates

a vision of a highly regulated Internet in which an expanded CRTC … would aggressively assert its jurisdictional power over Internet sites and services worldwide with the power to levy massive penalties for failure to comply with its regulatory edicts. 

The discussion has mostly focused on the wisdom of the BTLR Report’s 97 recommendations for regulating the way in which Canadians engage with the online world, and also on their impact on freedom of expression. But one aspect of the report ― indeed, not merely an aspect but a fundamental element of the report’s underlying philosophy ― has, I think, received less attention, although Professor Geist alludes to it with his reference to “an expanded CRTC”: the report’s commitment to administrative power. This is, perhaps, a less obvious issue, but we should not underestimate its significance. If followed, the report’s recommendations would not merely expand the CRTC, but make into a bureaucratic behemoth. We must not let this happen.

The BTLR Report recommends multiple amendments to the legislation governing electronic communications in Canada that would tend to produce the “highly regulated internet” to which Professor Geist refers. Yet the striking thing is that most of the proposed changes do not describe the regulations that they call for with any precision. Instead, they say that the CRTC should be given vast powers to bring into being the report’s imagined brave new world.

The CRTC would be givens new powers to make rules of general application. Most ominously, it would be given the ability to regulate “media content undertakings” ― that is, all manner of entities creating their own content, whether written, sound-based, or visual, as well as those providing platforms for the content created by others, everything from a humble podcast to giants like Netflix, Facebook, and YouTube. These “undertakings” would be required to register with the CRTC, which would be

enable[d] … to establish classes of registrants, to amend registrations, and impose requirements — whether through conditions of registration or through regulations — on registrants (Recommendation 57)

These requirements could, in particular, include “codes of conduct, including provisions with respect to resolution mechanisms, transparency, privacy, and accessibility”. (Recommendation 74) At the same time, the CRTC would be given

the power to exempt any media content undertaking or classes of media content undertakings from registration in instances in which — by virtue of its specialized content or format, revenues, or otherwise — regulation is neither necessary nor appropriate to achieve media content policy objectives. (Recommendation 58)

In other words, the CRTC would decide ― with virtually no guidance from legislation ― both what the rules for “media content undertakings” would be an who would in fact have to comply with them at all. In particular it would be to

impose discoverability obligations on all audio or audiovisual entertainment media content undertakings, as it deems appropriate, including …  prominence obligations [and] the obligation to offer Canadian media content choices(Recommendation 62). 

The CRTC could impose similar requirements on “on media aggregation and media sharing undertakings” ― again “as appropriate” (Recommendation 73). The CRTC would also be directed to “intervene, if necessary … in order to respond quickly to changes in the communications services, improve transparency, and promote trust” in the face of technologies that “combine algorithms and artificial intelligence with Big Data” (Recommendation 93).

The CRTC would also be empowered, and indeed required, to regulate behaviour of individual market actors. It would be given the remit “to ensure that rates are just and reasonable” in “key electronic communications markets” (Recommendation 29). Indeed, in a rare instance of seeking to restrain rather than expand the CRTC’s discretion, the BTLR Report suggests that the ability of the CRTC to “forbear” from regulating the justness of rates should be eliminated (Recommendation 30). The CRTC would also be given the power to “regulate economic relationships between media content undertakings and content producers, including terms of trade” (Recommendation 61). In relation to CBC/Radio-Canada, the CRTC would be tasked with “overseeing all its content-related activities” (Recommendation 83).

But the report would not only have the CRTC make the law for the online world. It would also be given a substantial autonomous power of the purse. It would be given the power to designate “from an expanded range of market participants — all providers of electronic communications services — … required contributors to funds to ensure access to advanced telecommunications”. (Recommendation 25) Among the requirements the CRTC would be able to impose on those required to register … would be “the payment of registration fees” (Recommendation 57). It could, further, “impose spending requirements or levies on all media content undertakings, except those” mainly providing written news (Recommendation 61), “some or all” of which it could use to fund “to the production of news content” through “an independent, arm’s length CRTC-approved fund for the production of news, including local news on all platforms” (Recommendation 71).

The CRTC would acquire additional adjudicative powers too. For example, Recommendation 38 suggests that it should resolve disputes over the location of telecommunication infrastructure. More significantly, it would be both prosecutor and judge when “imposing penalties for any failure to comply with the terms and conditions of registration” imposed on “media content undertakings” (Recommendation 57), with “resolv[ing] disputes” among which it would also be tasked (Recommendation 61). Not that this adjudication would necessarily look like that done in the courts, since the BTLR Report would empower the CRTC “to issue ex parte decisions where the circumstances of the case justify it”. (Recommendation 75)

The prophet of the administrative state in Canada, John Willis, described administrative agencies as “governments in miniature”. One hesitates to describe the law-making, trade-regulating, money-grabbing CRTC envisioned by the BTLR Report as in any sense miniature, but it sure looks like a government unto itself, albeit a rather undemocratic one. In addition to the Commissioners who would exercise legislative, executive, and judicial powers, it would have a sort of representative body, the Public Interest Committee, “composed of not more than 25 individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, skills, and experience representing the diversity of public, civic, consumer, and small business interests, and including Indigenous Peoples”. (Recommendation 15) It’s not quite clear who would be appointing these people, but it certainly does not seem that, despite their supposed mandate to represent the public, they would be elected. Not to worry though: there would also be funding, out of fees collected by the CRTC, for “public interest interventions” (Recommendations 12 and 13), in case, I suppose, the Public Interest Committee doesn’t sufficiently intervene to represent the public interest. And, in addition to the prosecutorial and judicial functions of the Commissioners, there would be

an independent, industry-funded, communications consumer complaints office with the authority to investigate and resolve complaints from individual and small business retail customers of services covered by the respective Acts,

whose “mandate and structure” the CRTC would “create and approve” (Recommendation 96).

Meanwhile, outside control over this machinery will be be reduced. The Commissioners, who are currently appointed to renewable five-year terms, would instead serve for seven years, with no possibility of renewal (Recommendation 4). A limited form of Parliamentary supervision, the laying of government “directions” to the CRTC before the Houses of Parliament would be abolished in the interests of swift regulation (Recommendation 6). And, of course, given the vagueness of the legislative guidance to the CRTC and the breadth of its mandate, it is unlikely that the courts would intervene much to police its regulatory activities.

To sum up, the CRTC would be put in control, with very few restraints, of Canadians’ interaction with the online world, and with one another. Who can speak online and on what conditions ― the CRTC would have control over that. How much they have to pay for the privilege, and where the money goes ― the CRTC would have control over that. How disputes among them, and between them and the CRTC itself, are to be resolved ― the CRTC would have control over that too. The only “checks” on it would come from handpicked representatives of the “public interest” as the CRTC itself conceives it ― not from Parliament or the courts.

The empowerment of the CRTC proposed by the BTLR Report is, of course, no accident. It proceeds from a specific philosophy of government, which the Report describes quite forthrightly. According to its authors,

The role of government is to establish broad policies. The role of regulators is to implement those policies through specific rules and in a transparent and predictable fashion. Legislation is the key instrument through which government establishes these policies. It should provide sufficient guidance to assist the CRTC in the discharge of its duties, but sufficient flexibility for it to operate independently in deciding how to implement sector policy. To achieve this, legislative statements of policy should set out broadly framed objectives and should not be overly prescriptive. (46-47)

In other words, government ― Parliament is left out of the equation entirely, as if it has nothing to do with legislation ― should mostly leave the CRTC alone. Indeed, it is important to preserve “proper balance between the government’s role in policymaking and the regulator’s role in implementing those policies independent of government influence”. (47) And, judging by the amount discretion ― to make law and dictate the behaviour of individual organizations, to levy fees and spend money, to identify, prosecute, and condemn alleged offenders and to adjudicate disputes ― the BTLR Report would vest in the CRTC, the “balance” is really all on the side of the regulator.

This is the philosophy the BTLR Report would impose on the 2020s and, perhaps, beyond. It ostensibly envisions “the CRTC’s shift toward a future-oriented, proactive, and data-driven style of regulation”. (44) But its ideology comes, not from the future, but from a distant and, as article on “The Depravity of the 1930s and the Modern Administrative State” by Steven G. Calabresi and Gary Lawson about which I blogged here shows, detestable past. As Professors Calabresi and Lawson explain, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s

administration and a compliant Congress created a vast array of new “expert” regulatory agencies, many of which followed the “independent” model by insulating the agency heads from at-will presidential removal, and many of which contained (and still contain) statutory authorizations to the agencies so vague as to be literally meaningless. … These agencies, controlled neither by the President nor by Congress, made life-altering decisions of both fact and law subject only to deferential judicial
review. (829)

This is the governance model proposed by the BTLR Report. Its original backers

fundamentally did not believe that all men are created equal and
should democratically govern themselves through representative institutions. They believed instead that there were “experts”—the modern descendants of Platonic philosopher kings, distinguished by their academic pedigrees rather than the metals in their souls—who should administer the administrative state as freely as possible from control by representative political institutions. (829)

(For more on the beliefs of 1930s pro-administrativists, see also this post by co-blogger Mark Mancini.) Judging by their proposals, the views of the authors of the BTLR Report are rooted in just this kind of thinking. They mistrust the free market as well as democratic institutions, and want fundamental decisions about what is, by their own account, an unbelievably important part of our lives to be made by officials deemed wiser than everyone else.

And if the philosophy behind the BTLR Report’s proposed future goes back a mere century, its institutional vision is considerably older still. In fact, at the risk of sounding a bit like Philip Hamburger (which, after all, isn’t a bad thing!) I would argue that it amounts to a counter-revolution against the 17th-century subjection of executive authority to law, and a reversal of the the post-1689 constitutional settlement. To be sure, everything the BTLR Report proposes to do would be covered by the fig leaf of ― deliberately vague and unconstraining ― legislative authority. But in substance, the proposals amount to executive law-making contrary to the Case of Proclamations, executive dispension from the law contrary to article 2 of the Bill of Rights 1688, executive adjudication contrary to the case of Prohibitions del Roy, and executive taxation contrary, this time, to article 4 of the Bill of Rights. James I and James II would be proud.

So when we hear that “this time it’s different” ― that the online world is like nothing we’ve seen before ― that its actors “pose a unique set of challenges for contemporary regulators”, as Paul Daly argues ― and that this justifies the sort of overwhelming regulatory response recommended by the BTLR Report, we need to be skeptical. For all that the issues raised by the modern world are ― now as a century ago! ― said to be quite unlike anything that came before, the solutions offered are the same old. More unfettered bureaucratic power is always said to do the trick. When all you have is a hammer…

More recently, a very different philosophy seemed, however briefly, to prevail in the online world. In the 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“, John Perry Barlow proclaimed:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

The Declaration isn’t much more remembered than the term “cyberspace” itself, nowadays, and the weary giants whom Barlow was taunting have come after the cyber-libertarians like Pushkin’s Stone Guest. If the authors of the BTLR Report get their way, the we would indeed be governed, to keep with the 17th century English political thought, by Leviathan himself.

NOTE: A petition to “the Government of Canada to Reject the recommendations regarding the legislation and regulation of free speech, free expression and the free press made by the” BTLR Report is open for signature at the House of Commons website. Please sign it!