Streaming bill could cause YouTube to ‘manipulate’ its algorithms

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OTTAWA — The head of Canada’s broadcast regulator says he could ask platforms like YouTube to “tweak” their algorithms to make Canadian music easier to find, under powers in the bill. law on online broadcasting.

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Ian Scott told a Senate committee reviewing the bill that while the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission wouldn’t want to manipulate the algorithms itself, it could say to the platforms: “I want you to manipulate it (l algorithm) to produce particular results.

His remarks were seized upon by critics of the online streaming bill, who say it confirms what they have warned against.

Matthew Hatfield of OpenMedia said Scott’s remarks confirmed “what we’ve been saying all along”. OpenMedia is an organization dedicated to keeping the Internet open. Although it is primarily funded by individuals, it receives funding from Google, whose parent company also owns YouTube.

YouTube has warned that Canadian digital creators, including influencers and broadcasters, could lose foreign revenue if the government forces digital platforms to promote Canadian content.

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Indeed, algorithms cross borders, and if a Canadian song presented to YouTube audiences in Canada is not liked or picked up, it may suggest that it is not popular. This in turn could lead to its downgrading worldwide.

The bill would update Canada’s streaming laws to apply to platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and Spotify, requiring them to take action to make content Canadian – including music, movies and TV shows – more “discovered”.

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet Law at the University of Ottawa, said it’s long been clear that these rules would require algorithmic manipulation.

“Indeed, this is precisely why so many Canadian digital creators have expressed concern about the bill and the harm it could cause,” he said.

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“The CRTC Chairman has acknowledged that the law will allow the government to do indirectly what it says it cannot do directly, by pressuring platforms to manipulate their algorithms to prioritize certain content compared to others.”

Geist said this could lead to Canadian creators seeing their content downgraded globally, leading to lower revenue and exposure.

But Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has publicly stated that the bill will not lead to platforms being asked to manipulate their algorithms.

On Thursday, his spokeswoman stressed that the government’s position has not changed, pointing out that part of Bill C-11 specifically excludes manipulation of algorithms. A clause in the bill would prevent the CRTC from making an order requiring “the use of a specific computer algorithm or source code.”

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“The government will ask the CRTC to work with platforms to present content so that more Canadians can find, choose and enjoy content from Canadian artists and creators,” said Laura Scaffidi.

“It will be up to the platforms to decide how best to meet these objectives.”

Scott made the remarks Wednesday night during his appearance before the Senate Transportation and Communications Committee, which is conducting a preliminary study of the bill.

The Online Streaming Bill this week passed the House of Commons but will now face scrutiny in the Senate.

In his opening remarks to the committee, Scott said the CRTC was “widely supportive” of the bill, but wanted a few changes, including one that would allow it to continue resolving disputes.

YouTube, Spotify and the CRTC declined to comment.

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