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💃🏼 better competition for digital creators
While the Government of Canada just launched its long awaited review of the Competition Act (the Future of Competition Policy in Canada), other bills focussed on the future of our digital economy have elements related to facilitating better competition - just think about how C18 empowers news publishers with collective bargaining rights.
Much has been made of another digital policy proposal, Bill C11 - the Online Streaming Act, which is currently sailing through the Senate. For many, it feels incongruent to apply traditional national broadcasting thinking from the ‘90s to international digital streaming services; mostly because platforms like Spotify or TikTok are not constrained by bandwidth or timing limitations that have come to characterise cable television or radio. And while so many of us are consumers on these platforms, far fewer are producers - and of those producers, a tiny subset see any sort of meaningful monetary success come from video blogging, uploading music, or making short videos. Nonetheless, YouTubers, TikTokers, streamers and podcasters are the latest constituency getting some serious attention from the federal government.
While we may actively search for content on these platforms, our consumption through them is heavily algorithmically managed; this algorithmic influence is typically packaged as “personalization.” In fact, the perverse incentive structures on these platforms are already skewing the composition of cultural artefacts: songs are getting shorter on average as a response to the minimum amount of time required to count as a ‘stream,’ book chapters have more cliffhangers as a tactic to convert your purchase from Kindle’s free sample download, and your Netflix homepage affects what you watch. In his new book, “Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination,” author Mark Bergen surveys how vloggers evolved their formats over time in an attempt to respond to changing algorithmic incentives.
Presuming that creators have a ton of power over the content that they produce is a farce. Their success on any platform isn’t solely the result of the quality of their product, but rather a function of a combination of content, structure, and timing. Some creators may juice the reach of their treasures by hijacking trending hashtags or investing in ads that boost their viewership.
But the Bill is unconcerned with the structure of content on online platforms. Rather, the Act introduces new obligations on the platforms that stream content, asking them to make modest financial contributions to producing officially recognized “CanCon,” while also making such content more discoverable and thus more likely to be considered for consumption.
This is similar to requirements that already exist for broadcasters, some of which straddle digital and traditional worlds like the CBC or Bell (Crave). Likely intended to help ensure that ‘Canadian’ cultural content - much of which is subsidised by tax dollars - has a shot at being seen and subsequently consumed by our ears and eyeballs. The Act doesn’t dictate how they should be compensated, even though Canadian musicians got an average of $67 in streaming royalties last year (just enough to pay for six months of ad-free Spotify).
The analog experience of blissful browsing is just a lot harder in an algorithmically manipulated marketplace, to the extent that it is possible at all. Unlike walking through the aisle at HMV (RIP), just because something (digital content) sits somewhere on a virtual shelf doesn’t mean you will or can ever discover it. This, too, comes back to the volume differentiator that seems to separate streaming from traditional broadcasting.
If passed, the Online Streaming Act would introduce a new obligation for foreign streaming companies to contribute to and distribute Canadian stories and music. Essentially, the policy makes the case that there is a role for the state to make these digital marketplaces more fair and equitable for creators. Without legislative intervention, we will continue to leave it up to private firms to elevate and amplify content at their discretion. Instead of a winner-takes-all economy, we could have more of a winner-shares-more situation whereby there is better alignment on streaming platforms between the interests of the company (profitability) and the interests of the creator (discoverability) with the overarching policy goal of promoting the arts in Canada.
Some people make their living performing to the incentives of various streaming platforms. We tend to refer to these people as “influencers,” but really they are the influenced - marionettes being exploited by arbitrary platform incentives and rewarded with eyeballs for their creative contortions. These platforms are not purely meritocratic and neither are their marketplaces.
Having few of the the most prominent, profitable online creators vocally oppose this bill is not unlike monopolists resisting modernization of the Competition Act - these actors often benefit from a laissez faire regulatory environment and may feel that their algorithmically determined livelihoods are being threatened.
Online streaming services are not ‘unregulated’ spaces and the idea that ‘we’ alone control our digital feeds is illusory. They are strictly moderated by the private actors that control them and dictate our experience(s) on and with them. Supporting the current and future creation of cultural content by Canadians is imperative if we want to be able to consume any of it in the future. Bill C-11 helps us get closer to realising that goal without forcing creators to contort their content. Instead the law introduces overdue obligations on online streaming platforms to give Canadians the shot at digital discovery that they deserve.
Sometimes it feels like our government designs digital policy a bit like online creators try to find their legs: it is exploratory, tentative, and imperfect at first draft. But with feedback - either algorithmic or through the legislative process - the methods are perfected. Maybe the Government of Canada was late to deeply consider what creators should be entitled to from the platforms that host them. Perhaps formalising new rules through something as old-school as fusty legislation cramps the vibe of the feed you are scrolling through. But it is time for the state to improve the visibility of Canadian content across these platforms. Let’s see how it goes.
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