Canada tries to make tech more Canadian - Exploring digital platform regulation Bills C-11 and C-18


In a new podcast, the Heinrich Böll Foundation explored two recent pieces of Canadian legislation, Bill C-11 and Bill C-18, which aim to promote Canadian content on digital platforms and support the struggling news industry. Controversies around these bills highlight challenges in digital regulation and their implications for global digital governance. This article explores those bills as well as the larger debate to regulate tech in Canada.

A Canadian flag in the wind above a building

The EU is at the forefront of regulating tech, but Canada has taken its own steps in shifting the power balance away from the tech companies toward Canadians. On some issues, Canada is pursuing legislation that aligns with Europe. For example, the government has proposed the Online Harms Act that aims to hold tech companies accountable for removing harmful content. This legislation is similar to Germany’s NetzDG that requires offending content be quickly taken down, the EU’s Digital Services Act that requires transparency on content removal, or even the UK’s Online Safety Act with the emphasis on protecting children online.

When it comes to digital media and protecting Canadian journalism, however, Canada has taken its own approach. Two new laws passed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government in 2023 – Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, and Bill C-18, the Online News Act – push tech to be more Canadian.

The first is Bill C-11, or the Online Streaming Act. The law aims to promote domestic digital media content by requiring online streaming platforms such as Netflix and Spotify to provide users with Canadian content. The government hopes to support uniquely Canadian content, including from indigenous and French Canadian creators. One piece of Canadian content from 2023, the show Little Bird, highlights the tragic forced displacement of indigenous children that occurred between the 1960s and 1980s.

However, some lawmakers and civil society have lingering concerns about the law. They worry the law could restrict online expression and have pushed for regulations that appropriately define Canadian content (does Justin Bieber count?) while reducing the burden on individual content creators.

The other law is Bill C-18, or the Online News Act, which aims to channel money from the tech companies, who have historically profited from news, to Canadian news outlets. The law comes at a challenging time: online platforms are moving away from news, likely in part because of their struggles to control election and other disinformation on their platforms. The law requires companies such as Meta and Google to negotiate agreements with news media organizations to share profits.

While Google reached an agreement, Meta has announced it will avoid the issue altogether and no longer allow news to be shared on their platforms in Canada.Canadians will not be able to access even international news sources on Meta’s platforms. Critics also contend that the law could be a big boon to major outlets while doing little to support the local and independent news outlets that are essential to democracy.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is responsible for both laws and it now has a chance to address these challenges through regulation.

Canada's lawmaking efforts have sparked debates about digital governance and broader implications for internet freedom and democratic values. This area of policy has been firmly cemented in the so-called culture wars in Canada, attracting criticism from home and abroad from the likes of online personalities Elon Musk and Joe Rogan, who lambasted the bills as authoritarian free speech power grabs by the government. Canadian Margaret Atwood, the author of dystopian fiction, has been similarly critical of the government’s efforts.

Lessons drawn from Canada's experiences are relevant for the rest of the world. Discourses and movements in one country can reverberate globally, especially given the interconnected nature of the internet and digital platforms. The Canadian Trucker Convoy of early 2022 is a case and point, which proliferated into similar protests across Europe. How much will Canadians be exposed to the rest of the world’s news and creative content under the new laws?

Canada and Europe face many of the same risks, and opportunities, from technology. Canada took its own approach with Bills C-11 and C-18 to make tech more Canadian. With the new Online Harms Act, it may end up more aligned with Europe. But unlike in Europe, this law is emerging in the polarized discourse environment forged by Bill C-11 and C-18. Time will tell how well those approaches will work.

You can listen to the podcast here in English or German here.