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Power Struggle Over CommunicationPower Struggle Over Communication

Power Struggle Over Communication

The continuing battle over Bill C-10, which revises the federal Broadcasting Act, is a fundamental dispute over who decides how Canadians connect, Peter Stockland reports in the first of two parts.

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Topics: Institutions, Law, Policy, Government, Ethics, Technology, Trust
Power Struggle Over Communication May 12, 2021  |  By Peter Stockland
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Read part two of Peter Stockland's two-part series on Bill C-10.

Two bright spots amid the thunderbolts and lightening of the Liberal government’s federal Broadcasting Act amendments are the Official Opposition’s performance and evidence that Parliament’s committee structure can work.

A critical third positive is that there have been thunderbolts and lightening around Liberal attempts to amend the federal Broadcasting Act, a proper noun that would normally be met with Canada-wide fluttering eyelids and cross-country sounds of zzzzzzzzzz. 

Initially, the amendments, formally known as Bill C-10, seemed set to sail through the House of Common’s Heritage Committee untouched. C-10 now stands a good chance of being pulled back for what its opponents insist is vitally needed re-writing.

Kudos for the outcome go in many directions. Work by Opposition MPs such as Rachael Harder, Michelle Rempel Garner, Pierre Poilievre, and Alain Rayes, however, sent the Bill’s sponsor, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, figuratively flailing backwards over chairs in his panicked efforts to rescue the Bill.

It’s as close as we seem to get in Canada 2021 to ministerial accountability. Long gone are the days when a cabinet minister could be forced to resign, as the Harper era’s Bev Oda was, merely for buying overpriced orange juice on the public tab. But Opposition members exist in part to give teeth to such watchdoggery. Their having done so partially through the House of Commons Heritage Committee credits them and reminds us the system serves its purpose.

Of prime importance to that purpose is the serious, and seriously welcome, debate touched off by C-10. Shake off the snore-inducing sound of federal Broadcasting Act amendments. Pay attention. The argument matters. Why? Because it’s over how – and what – you and I communicate with each other as Canadians. In starker terms still, it’s about the State’s proper role in regulating, directing, and deciding the nature of that communication at a broad national level.

The difference of opinion between Bill C-10’s advocates and critics is fundamentally a division between intention and effect. Those who support it consider it necessary for advancement of Canadian culture, and a bulwark against global social media juggernauts such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Netflix, etc. Those opposed warn the very mechanisms by which C-10 will change the Broadcasting Act present a major threat to the Charter guaranteed free speech of Canadians.

Writing recently in Montreal’s Le Devoir, the newspaper of record for the tallest of tall Quebecois foreheads, editorialist Robert Dutrisac presents the case for C-10 in classic bicultural terms: English Canada's willingness to sell itself to the Americans versus the protective instincts of Quebecers.

“Submitting to American cultural hegemony in the name of liberty, as some conceive of it in English Canada, is contrary to the interests of the Quebec nation that inclines toward cultural diversity and defends an artistic vitality that is itself the expression of our freedom,” Dutrisac writes in an editorial headlined “Against Cultural Hegemony.”

He also points out the paradox of massive businesses that operate on secret algorithms to direct the choices of social media users being held up by C-10’s opponents as paragons of virtue in the battle against Big Brother.

“Who really knows the manipulation they are capable of to influence the cultural choices of the population?” he asks.

On Medium.com, blogger Gord Dimitrieff takes the “who really knows?” question even further by pointedly asking it about the involvement, albeit behind the scenes, of Facebook, Google et al in actually fomenting opposition to  C-10. In fact, Dimitrieff argues this week, the very argument that the legislation threatens free speech and thought “demonstrates exactly why Bill C-10 is an important and necessary tool” to enhance, rather than menace, Canadian democracy.

“For many years, observers have sounded alarm bells about the role of social media in manipulating public opinion…by spreading fake news and toxic narratives. In response to these accusations, social media companies have engaged in Orwellian-like doublethink by styling themselves as defenders of free speech,” he writes.

Dimitrieff dismisses the concept of social media as a form of public square. It is, he argues, really the digital equivalent of private mall where the rules are written to guarantee the human herd ordering that maximizes profit.  More, he points to documented evidence of the tactics Google, for example, has used to press elite opinion into the service of hoodwinking the public and roiling it up against legislation like C-10.

“It should therefore come as a surprise to nobody that the moment social media companies were faced with the prospect of CRTC oversight, a groundswell of misinformed public outcry suddenly appeared demanding ‘freedom of speech’ from elected officials…. The sudden orchestrated backlash against C-10 literally proves its necessity,” he concludes.

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Dutrisac’s editorial caution about Quebec, and indeed English Canada, being culturally swamped by the rising Internet tide is a legitimate one. As Jesus said of the poor, American hegemony will always be with us. Active recognition of the reality has been a staple of cultural thinking in the northern half of North America for at least 70 years. Likewise, he and Dimitrieff are entirely right and reasonable in warning that we should no more place our trust in secret algorithms than we should in princes.

But it’s here that opponents of C-10 bring the hammer down on the tender parts of intention. It's why they aim at the soft illogic that says, “we need something; therefore, we need this.” No, say C-10’s critics. No matter how laudable its aims, badly crafted law must not pass Parliamentary scrutiny. Not when its effects can be categorized under the general headings of “risky,” “dangerous,” and “who the &#%?@! knows?”

It’s crucial to emphasize as well that, contrary to Dimitrieff’s claim, those critics did not simply come out of nowhere as the clock ticked down on the Heritage Committee’s deliberations. True, public attention became focused on the committee’s work only after the threat of C-10 being available to censor user-generated content on, say, YouTube, caught fire in the media.

But as I wrote last week, Convivium.ca has been following the opposition to the whole process for well over a year–long before the Bill was even introduced. Alarms were, in fact, being raised during the review of the Broadcasting Act that began in 2018.

Nor is it accurate to characterize those opposed as mere stoops, dupes, and nincompoops easily led around by social media master manipulators. One of Bill C-10’s strongest opponents is Len St-Aubin, who helped re-write the Broadcasting Act in 1991. Another is Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law. Two more are Peter Menzies and Konrad von Finckenstein QC, respectively former vice-chair and chair of the CRTC.

These are all deeply experienced experts in communications regulation. As far as I have been able to determine, none have issued clarion calls to sell English Canadian or Quebecois culture down the river to the Yanks. Nor are they marks for Facebook’s Mr. Zuckerberg. All have, however, warned in varying ways that the worst flaw in Bill C-10 is the ill-effect its best intentions will have on how Canadians can freely communicate with each other as our own Charter of Rights guarantees.

In Friday’s column, I’ll dig into the language of the Bill itself to examine what its flaws might be.

Photo by Lukas Bato at Unsplash.com


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