Business

CRTC registration for podcasts and streaming companies draws criticism

Canada's broadcasting regulator is obligating online streamers and podcast companies to provide registration information to them. But the new requirements are also inviting speculation that heavier regulation of content from online streamers and podcast companies is coming.

Social media users not required to register with regulator, but some services will be

Hand holding a TV remote while watching shows on a streaming service on TV.
The CRTC says online streaming companies that earn more than $10 million in annual revenues in Canada must register with the regulator by late November. (Said Marroun/Shutterstock)

News that online streamers and podcasters will soon be required to register with Canada's broadcasting regulator is raising confusion and concerns that heavier regulation may be coming.

Late Friday afternoon, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced that online streaming and podcasting services operating in Canada with $10 million or more in annual revenue in this country, will have to register with it before Nov. 28.

Registration involves providing the legal name of a company, its address, its telephone number and email, and what type of services it offers. In its decision, released Friday, the CRTC called registration a "very light" burden.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, describes the information being collected as "limited," but said he suspects there is more to come from the CRTC.

A man in a grey sweater, with papers and books covering the desk he's sitting at, looks at a laptop computer screen.
The CRTC's move requiring podcasts to register could signal more regulation is coming, according to Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. (David Thurton/CBC)

"I think a lot of people take a look at this and feel like it's the thin edge of the wedge [and] that more regulation is on the way," Geist said in an interview with CBC News.

It's a perspective echoed by Canadian podcaster Jesse Brown, publisher of Canadaland, who told CBC News that Friday's announcement by the CRTC is concerning to him.

"What they're signalling is, 'We are going to be regulating the space, but we're not telling you how.' That makes it very hard," he said.

CRTC's move related to Bill C-11

The move is part of the implementation of the Online Streaming Act, formerly known as Bill C-11, which became law in April. It updated the Broadcasting Act to require streaming and online services, such as Netflix and Spotify, to eventually pay into the domestic media ecosystem to support Canadian content, including music and TV shows.

The Act doesn't define what that content should be or how much support will be required, and delegates that task to the CRTC.

Under the Online Streaming Act, social media and online services offering podcasts will now have to register with the regulator, while social media users, including those who share podcasts over social platforms, will not.

The CRTC said it does not expect podcasters who host their content on their own websites, or who make it available on subscription platforms, would be required to register "because their annual revenues, in most likelihood, would be below the proposed exemption threshold" of $10 million.

However, a larger company such as Spotify may need to register. Spotify told the CRTC during public hearings in July that it wanted to see podcasts exempted from regulation, due to "the economic strain the podcasting industry is currently experiencing."

'Uncertainty' for podcasters

According to Brown, the CRTC's move to include podcasting companies in the new streaming regulations was not what he — or his industry — expected.

He said the earlier messaging was that the CRTC was moving to regulate and govern the "web giants" offering streaming content, such as Netflix or Disney, and not podcast producers and networks. He's concerned about what's to come for smaller players like his company, even though it doesn't meet the $10 million threshold at this time.

"What it's created in the short term is poison for an innovative industry, which is uncertainty," Brown said. "Nobody knows how this is going to play out. Nobody knows what our obligations are going to be. Nobody knows if we're going to benefit from it."

A man in a blue shirt stares into a camera.
Jesse Brown is the publisher at podcast network Canadaland; his company is not yet subject to the CRTC's new registration rules. (CBC)

The CRTC is also requiring the online streaming services that meet their threshold to provide it with information related to what content they offer and who subscribes, and prohibiting them from restricting content to people who subscribe to specific internet providers.

The commission will also be holding consultations, starting in the winter, that could potentially redefine what counts as Canadian content.

'Censorship' claims not accurate, says law prof

As for various claims on social media that the CRTC's move is a form of censorship or an attack on free speech, Geist says emphatically that is not true.

"I don't think that registration is the same as a censorship regime," he said. However, he added, he isn't without concern.

"The idea that you potentially would have to register with the Canadian government or with its agency, the CRTC, in order to engage in expression, because you meet a certain threshold for revenue is, I think, a real incursion into expression."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anis Heydari

Senior Reporter

Anis Heydari is a senior business reporter at CBC News. Prior to that, he was on the founding team of CBC Radio's "The Cost of Living" and has also reported for NPR's "The Indicator from Planet Money." He's lived and worked in Edmonton, Edinburgh, southwestern Ontario and Toronto, and is currently based in Calgary. Email him at anis@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press

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