The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trudeau’s government is still trying to wreck Canadian YouTube

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with the media as he highlights his government's new budget during a visit to Laval, Quebec, on April 13. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
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In late January, Dan Olson, a Canadian YouTuber, posted a self-produced documentary entitled “Line Goes Up — The Problem With NFTs.” Olson’s politics are not my own, but the disturbing questions he raises about the long-term implications of increasingly ubiquitous blockchain technology on everything from millennial wealth to personal privacy makes his two-hour video essential viewing.

But Olson hardly needs my endorsement. At the time of this writing, “Line Goes Up” has been viewed more than 7 million times. In the global discourse around NFTs, an unassuming man from Calgary, Alberta, has established himself as a leading skeptic.

He is also one of many, many Canadians who have found a way to thrive in the unique media ecosystem that is YouTube. The millions of views his videos routinely pull are something any mainstream Canadian journalist or entertainer would envy, as are the nearly 700,000 subscribers to his channel, “Folding Ideas.”

I’ve been thinking of Olson — and the 449 Canadian YouTubers more popular than him — amid news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government intends to revive its stalled efforts to regulate YouTube in a more nationalistic direction. Trudeau’s project, after all, is grounded in a series of conclusions about the supposedly struggling state of Canadian digital content creators that are so insultingly at odds with observable reality as to invite suspicion of hidden, darker motives.

Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act — the successor to the scrapped Bill C-10 that drew much scorn last spring — once again proposes placing YouTube (and other platforms like it) under the authority of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which will have the power to force YouTube to categorize and distribute its content the way Canadian television and radio stations already must.

In practice, this means dictating “the proportion of time that shall be devoted to the broadcasting of Canadian programs,” as well as “prescribing what constitutes a Canadian program.” This could conceivably obligate YouTube to bury foreign videos whenever a Canadian uses its search engine, as well as force Canadian creators to fill out some sort of checklist when they upload a video in order to affirm it fulfills government-dictated criteria of Canadian-ness and is worthy of “discoverability” in the new search algorithm. It could even force Canadian users to automatically subscribe to channels the government thinks are worthy — à la Canadian cable providers’ current obligation to make Canadians subscribe to stations such as the CBC and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network regardless if they want to or not. Clause 10.1(k) of the proposed legislation awards the CRTC ominous, open-ended power to decree regulations “respecting such other matters as it deems necessary for the furtherance of its objects.”

This is all being done in the name of a patriotic greater good: to protect Canada’s “cultural sovereignty” and “make our diverse Canadian voices, music, and stories heard across Canada and globally through a variety of services,” says the government’s news release, alongside the more ideologically precise objective of ensuring “greater representation of Indigenous peoples, racialized communities, cultural and linguistic minorities, LGBTQ2+ communities, and persons with disabilities” to guarantee “our culture and content will better reflect a 21st century Canada.”

It’s a remarkably ignorant statement given there’s little evidence these lofty objectives aren’t already being fulfilled by an unregulated YouTube.

I myself am an LGBTQ2+ YouTuber who has never struggled to tell “Canadian stories” on the platform — as Tristin Hopper once noted of me in the National Post, “the man got 250,000 views on a video about the Canadian constitution.” Evan “Vanoss” Fong and Lilly Singh are among the most successful Canadians in YouTube history, and both are visible minorities. The radical Indigenous rights activist Pam Palmater has a channel, a Brazilian-Canadian girl has earned more than 8 million subscribers making videos where she speaks only Portuguese … the list goes on. The Canadian government itself regularly concedes this reality whenever it feels the need to assemble a crack team of diverse and interesting YouTubers as part of some overpriced “influencer” campaign pushing voting or vaccines or whatever.

For 17 years, YouTube has been a case study of what would happen if a user-driven broadcast platform was permitted to operate in Canada without CRTC busy-bodying. The result has been endless hours of quality Canadian content and thousands of Canadian superstars, some of whom are among the most-watched personalities on the site and perhaps even some of the most famous Canadians in the world.

This being the case, Bill C-11 has earned the vicious characterization of its fiercest opponents: an act of an authoritarian-minded government seeking greater control over independent media for purely ideological purposes in a globally unprecedented reimagining of the state’s right to control online content, justified only by an imperious assertion that politicians and bureaucrats should decide what their citizenry needs to see.

If passed, it will serve only to empower other regimes that believe the unrestricted freedom to choose what we watch and hear is a monster to be slain.

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