The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada has produced hundreds of YouTube stars. Why is Trudeau trying to change it?

The YouTube logo at the YouTube Space LA in Playa Del Rey, Los Angeles, Calif., on Oct. 21, 2015. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
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I did a radio show the other day in which the host flatteringly introduced me as one of the “most popular Canadian YouTubers,” but that’s not remotely true. According to Social Blade, a handy website for measuring social media fame, I am merely the 1,483rd most popular Canadian YouTuber. So while the fact that I have nearly 300,000 subscribers (more than the population of Orlando) might sound impressive to some, Social Blade says there are well over 100 Canadian YouTubers with subscriber counts surpassing 3 million — a combined audience larger than the population of Indonesia.

This matters in the context of the debate over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Bill C-10, which aims to put streaming media sites such as YouTube under the jurisdiction of the federal government in order to improve Canadian culture, or something. The legislation would declare streaming media websites “broadcasters” and thus subject them to regulation of the sort the federal government currently applies to television and radio, including mandatory quotas for good, culturally-enriching Canadian content, as determined by Ottawa bureaucrats.

In the old days, cultural central planning had a certain logic to it. Airwaves were a limited resource and there was only so much content that could be crammed into CTV prime time, or “Boomer and K-Dawg’s drive-time rock-out.” So why not give a helping hand to the nation’s struggling artists and mandate some “CanCon?”

However, once the limitations of old media were made redundant by on-demand Internet services such as YouTube and Spotify — in which every single Canadian could theoretically watch or listen to something different simultaneously — the protectionist case evaporated. Canadians were now thrust into a gatekeeper-free, hypercompetitive global marketplace, in which the public appeal of their content was all that determined success or failure.

And on YouTube at least, Canadians have done very well indeed. Technology reviewers Lewis Hilsenteger and Linus Sebastian, fitness influencer Maddie Lymburner, backyard engineer James Hobson, children’s entertainer “Papa” Jake McCormick, cartoonist Dominic Panganiban, gamers Evan “Vanoss” Fong and Andre “TG” Rebelo, science guys Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, and vloggers Azzy Bajrami and Cristine Rotenberg together have a combined subscriber count of more than 125 million, and are certainly among the best-known Canadians to a sizable chunk of the world.

Not good enough, the state responds: Canadian success isn’t sufficient unless what’s being made is ostentatiously Canadian in some overtly ideological way. Bill C-10 contains a laundry list of identity politics categories it believes good Canadian broadcasting must “serve the needs and interests” of, suggesting the guy who makes videos about Minecraft won’t be doing his patriotic duty until he works in some commentary about Indigenous reconciliation or the importance of the French language. Creators who play along will presumably see their content promoted on YouTube’s home, explore and possibly even subscriber tabs, to “invite Canadians,” as Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault recently put it, to watch more good, patriotic programming.

This in turn highlights a long-running tension regarding what precisely “Canadian culture” is. Is it something inherently politicized, left-wing and anti-American, defined by “distinctive” patriotic cliches and government priorities, including an official hierarchy of peoples? Or is it something more apolitical and North American, defined by broad, middle class consumer tastes and lifestyle habits that are widely shared across the continent — and in many cases, the Western world?

The success of Canadian YouTube seems to affirm the latter and demonstrate that Canadians — as members of a midsized English-speaking country whose high levels of wealth and education begets informed commentary about things like food, technology and entertainment — are incredibly well-placed to thrive on a free-market Internet. That Trudeau’s government finds this a troubling state of affairs reveals both the degree his administration is being puppeteered by lobbyists representing unpopular, government-subsidized old media entertainers, as well as its appetite for using mass media as an instrument of ideological conformity.

Annoyingly, few megawatt Canadian YouTubers have weighed in on Bill C-10. Many are doubtless wary of “getting political,” but I’m sure just as many don’t really think Ottawa’s plans to fiddle with the site’s “discoverability” algorithm in order to elevate more politically-correct creators will be all that impactful on their business model. Once you have several million loyal subscribers, your success is relatively entrenched, and the government has backed down from previous comments that it intends to specifically single out big channels for targeted regulation.

But it’s worth sparing a thought for the next generation of creators, who may be forced to pursue their dreams on a very different playing field. As Guilbeault has noted with jealousy, about three-quarters of YouTube videos are watched through the site’s recommendation algorithm, in which an AI system promotes content it thinks you will enjoy based on past viewing habits.

If Bill C-10 passes, satisfying the needs of audiences — the formula that has produced countless Canadian YouTube success stories, including my own — may soon take a back seat to satisfying government regulators. Those of us who have benefited from a golden era of creative freedom online should feel obligated to ensure it continues for others.

Read more:

J.J. McCullough: Trudeau’s plan for the Internet: More patriotic propaganda, less choice for users

David Moscrop: The pandemic has highlighted a fundamental flaw in Canada’s democracy

Nora Loreto: Canada’s coronavirus crisis exposes the deadly issues in long-term care

J.J. McCullough: Canada is failing on vaccines — and the responsibility lies with Justin Trudeau

David Moscrop: Ontario’s lockdown guidelines are a confusing mess