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Canada leads charge to force Internet giants to support more localized content

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly poses for a portrait along the Ottawa River April 19, 2016 in Gatineau, Quebec. Ms. Joly seeks to build international coalition to put pressure on multimedia companies like Netflix, Apple and Facebook.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa wants to create an international coalition that will give governments new powers to force Internet and multimedia giants to fund and showcase the creation of domestic content on their digital platforms.

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has spent most of the year consulting Canadians on the best way to boost the production and international sales of Canadian content in an era of constant technological changes.

This week, she is heading to Paris to start acting on a key request by a number of players in Canada's cultural industries: getting international players like Netflix, Apple and Facebook to boost their contributions to Canadian culture.

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In an interview, Ms. Joly said she is well aware the Internet "knows no borders," and that persuading international giants to play by an individual country's rules can sometimes seem like an impossible task. However, she said the best way to get traction on this front is to make a case on the international stage, starting with a presentation on Tuesday at the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

"What I want is for Canada to play a leadership role," Ms. Joly said of her trip, which also includes stops in Berlin and Brussels. "What is the most important thing for me is that as a government, we have access to levers to support our creators and allow them to express and share their views and their content."

Ms. Joly made it clear the federal government does not wish to engage in a confrontational relationship with the mostly U.S.-based corporate giants, but that she wants to ensure that Canada benefits from the explosion of new technologies.

"I've always said we are ready to have conversations with those companies and those platforms. We are already engaged with them, and will continue to do so. But on a general level, it is obvious that the more we are able to have a concerted approach among countries on this issue, the better we will be able to make sure it is a priority," she said.

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Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor who has closely followed the public consultations on the future of Canada's cultural industries, said the federal government needs to take a measured approach to Internet giants.

"There is a fair amount of consensus around the issue of sales taxes for digital companies," he said in an interview, pointing to the need to "level the playing field" with Canadian-based companies. "There are global efforts to try and develop common standards around sales taxes for digital service providers, and I think there is a lot of value there."

However, Mr. Geist said the government will be engaged in a losing battle if tries to fit a company like Netflix into the existing broadcasting system – especially given the firm already spends hundreds of millions of dollars on productions in Canada.

"If [Ms. Joly] has begun to see companies such as Netflix and Google as targets for regulation or for payment, I think that is a mistake," he said. "I don't think the notion of government tinkering with the Internet or trying to prioritize Canadian content on the Internet makes any sense in the digital environment."

Since the launch of the public consultations in the spring, Ms. Joly has been vague about the government's intentions regarding the generation of new revenues from digital platforms. In the interview, she said she does not favour a protectionist approach to CanCon, but rather one that encourages various players to invest in the country.

"The more we are able to have players who are willing to participate in our system, the more we will be able to have healthy cultural diversity," she said.

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Ms. Joly added that one of her goals is to build on UNESCO's 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, and to make it relevant to today's digital environment.

"We must bring this conversation to the international level, that is obvious. Canada currently has the credibility to do so, in the sense that we are a government that understands technological phenomena, that understands the positive impacts, but also the negative ones, that come with the Internet," she said.

The results of the public consultations on the future of CanCon will be made public in 2017. Ottawa also wants a new policy on the promotion of cultural exports next year, spearheaded by Ms. Joly and International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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