After a pandemic year in which we have been forced to live online more than ever, Canadians are concerned about the safety and security of the internet. Their concerns are justified by headlines of a major cyber attack shutting down a crucial energy pipeline in the US or a national medical testing firm hit by a massive data breach. More than three-quarters of Canadians surveyed in CIRA’s exclusive poll believe the Privacy Commissioner should be given new powers to protect personal information. The people we surveyed have a nuanced view about how to protect against cyber attacks, strongly supporting ISPs in blocking malicious websites while also wary of the risks that it could mean suppressing legitimate free speech.
With the federal government considering legislation that could have far reaching impacts on social media, a healthy majority of Canadians agree with the concept of a law that would require platforms to remove illegal or harmful content. But their attitudes are tempered by concerns about hampering free expression.
Almost nine in ten Canadians see a serious problem with the spread of fake news on social media. At the same time, they clearly recognize the value to our democracy of legitimate news organizations and are willing to accept new methods of funding a sector that is suffering badly. They are less certain about where that funding should come from.
As humanity struggles with the persistent public health threat of COVID-19, the internet is more than ever an essential service. As the caretaker of the .CA domain, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) is determined to be a positive force in making it safer, more secure and more accessible for all. The title of this report, Canadians Deserve a Better Internet, means exactly what it says. The report is published every year by CIRA to help give context to important public conversations and to inform decision makers in crafting policy. The stakes are high, and Canadians deserve an informed debate.
- While there is broad support for a new law requiring social media platforms to remove illegal or harmful content within 24 hours of it being flagged (79 per cent), a majority of Canadians are concerned this could result in the removal of legitimate, lawful speech (62 per cent).
- 84 per cent of Canadians support ISPs in blocking websites used to launch cyber attacks, but half also agree it’s an extreme measure that should be used as a last resort.
- Canadians are worried about their privacy online. More than three-quarters (77 per cent) support giving the Office of the Privacy Commissioner new powers to help protect their personal information.
- While Canadians support new funding for news (58 per cent), they are divided on the idea of forcing social media platforms to pay news publishers for linking to their content. Only 52 per cent support the idea, and there is equal support for requiring platforms to collect GST/HST and fund news from general revenue.
- Most Canadians support government action to stimulate the creation of Canadian content (59 per cent). Support is strongest for requiring foreign streaming services to collect GST/HST and direct some of those funds towards CanCon.
- 81 per cent believe it is important that publicly-funded internet projects be tested after completion to ensure that networks deliver promised speeds.
- 88 per cent of Canadians believe the spread of fake news on social media platforms is a problem.
Two decades into a new century, a medium that began as a technological curiosity has evolved into a force of great influence. Accessible far and wide through modestly priced devices, it quickly became a popular way to spend leisure time. In Canada, it sparked concerns about a dominant American industry that permeated across the border, and some of the radical content featured on the new medium caught government attention. The government set to work to introduce new regulations and seize national control over an industry spurred by this new communications technology.
If you read that paragraph as a summary of where Canada currently stands with regulating the internet, your assumption is understandable. However, the technology referenced is radio and the century is the 20th.
Radio’s emergence in Canada created issues that spurred significant government intervention and were parallel to many of the issues at the heart of debates about internet regulation today.
In 1929, the Aird Commission issued a report after investigating the implications of radio for Canada, leading to the creation of what we know today as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The Aird Commission examined how the advertising-heavy business model of radio stations clustered around urban centres worked. It was concerned that rural Canadians would be denied access to the new medium and all the benefits it brought. Another concern was the ever-growing dominance of American radio stations that were already being broadcast across the border, with many interested in setting up local expansions into Canada. Even the broadcasts themselves were under scrutiny following several pointed attacks on the Catholic Church and federal government that occurred over the airwaves.
A century later, the regulatory debate about communications technology has shifted to the internet but is being painted with the same broad strokes. This time, concerns about the advertising model are that it is dominated by Silicon Valley tech giants, leaving little revenue for Canadian news media to subsist. Access is still an issue, with many rural Canadians without broadband access. While other households may have basic access, they are unable to afford high quality internet access that is required to participate fully in the online economy.
While the desire to protect and promote Canadian content against the dominant American industry informed the creation of the CBC and CRTC in the 1920s, this desire has transformed itself in the 2020s into attempts to regulate American digital behemoths in order to support Canadian content. The outrage over the content published online has created a public uproar similar to that of the 1920s. However, the offenders are private firms seeking profits, and the offending content ranges from being outright illegal to rampant disinformation.
The implications of the Aird report played out over decades, resulting in new regulations that shaped the broadcast industry throughout the 20th century. For better or worse, Canada’s experience with broadcast media continues to be viewed through the lens of a regulatory regime that seeks to curb the power of privately held firms in order to achieve Canada’s cultural objectives. At this point, we can safely expect that legislative decisions made by the government in the next year or two will have a similar impact on Canadians’ experience with the internet for decades to come.
The question remains whether Canada will commit to a democratic and open internet that puts people first, or will it put a damper on the greatest transformative economic force of our time?
At CIRA, we believe that Canadians deserve a better internet. That’s why we collect their opinions on the internet issues that matter most to them every year. As internet regulation looms, public opinion on these issues matters more than ever before. We explore the potential paths ahead in this year’s edition of the Canadians Deserve a Better Internet report.
Curbing Illegal and Harmful Content Online: Shutting down bad players while preserving free speech
[ Content warning: The following section contains reference to sexual assault. ]
Sometimes it takes a critical eye from the outside to spur action from within. That was the case when Canadians read Nicholas Kristof’s The Children of Pornhub opinion piece in the New York Times this past December, the sub-head featured a question that couldn’t be ignored – “Why does Canada allow this company to profit off videos of exploitation and assault?”
The article made clear the human cost of Pornhub’s business model, which allowed user-generated content to be uploaded to its site. Canadians responded by calling on the federal government to intervene and take legal action against the site’s Montreal-based parent company, Mindgeek. Kristoff’s story of a teenager who was victimized when a naked video she sent to a boyfriend at age 14 ended up on Pornhub, was reinforced by other women who came forward with their stories of lives damaged by videos they couldn’t stop from being shared on the platform. The result was widespread outrage as Canadians demanded the government take action to stop the illegal and illicit content from continuing to spread unabated.
Public scrutiny of how digital platforms knowingly or unknowingly host harmful and illegal content comes at a time when Canada and other governments around the world are considering new laws around the limits of free expression online. The European Union and the United States are debating how to effectively regulate content hosted online and hold platforms accountable, with discussions often wrapped up in wide-ranging policy discussions about the internet. However, relatively few countries have been bold enough to act.
That leaves the private sector to respond. In this case, they responded quickly as Mastercard, Visa, and Discover all blocked their customers from using credit cards to make purchases on Pornhub. (PayPal had already blocked Pornhub transactions in 2019 and American Express also previously barred the site).
According to our research, Canadians support the credit card companies in their decision. About three-quarters support the prohibition of Pornhub, with 56 per cent saying they strongly support it. Only 8 per cent of Canadians opposed the move.
Pornhub’s problem with child sexually exploitative materials is just one example of many of the problems regulating content on platforms that make user-generated content the focus. Unlike a newspaper publisher, which is responsible for every word that is printed, digital platforms are generally not legally liable for what their users upload. These platforms are viewed as distinct from their users, freed from the responsibility to police content outside of their own terms of service—or takedown request from a judge. The result is often that “lawful, but awful” content can remain on these platforms. In the case of Pornhub, even illegal content can keep re-appearing.
Pornhub responded to the column by improving its self-governance efforts, only allowing verified users to upload content and removing the option to download videos, among other measures. These are the sorts of measures that critics of the current regulatory approach argue could have already been in place if platforms were regulated.
Lawmakers are considering whether new rules should be used to ensure these measures are put in place proactively, not after the damage has been done. Canadians support such efforts, and also want the platforms to be actively involved in content moderation. Eighty-five per cent of Canadians say that social media platforms should be expected to play a role in removing illegal content, with 58 per cent saying they should play a major role. Canadians also believe that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are often used to spread illegal hate speech. Eight in ten Canadians say that hate speech is a problem on social media and 45 per cent say it is a major problem.
74% support credit card companies cutting ties with Pornhub
80% agree hate speech is a problem on social media
The government is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the spread of illegal content online, including hate speech. Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said that the new rules would be overseen by a newly created social media regulator, responsible for enforcing an updated definition of hate speech. It could have enforcement and auditing powers to wield against social media platforms.
But government-imposed censorship of online content raises concerns for Canadians. About six in ten Canadians are concerned that such rules could wrongfully result in the removal of legitimate, lawful speech. Similarly, nearly half (46 per cent) of Canadians are concerned the laws would inhibit people from freely expressing themselves online.
Aside from social media platforms removing illegal content themselves, the web’s underlying infrastructure providers could also play a role in removing harmful and illegal content. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), content delivery networks (CDNs), web hosting services, search engines, and other intermediaries could play a role in preventing access to illegal content by their users. Fewer Canadians think that ISPs should play a role in censoring content than the other options, with 59 per cent per cent saying they should play at least somewhat of a role in removing illegal content. Canadians favoured CDNs as the first line of defence for removing illegal content with 76 per cent saying they should play a role, followed by search engines with 73 per cent.
When it comes to using the underlying infrastructure of the internet for regulatory enforcement, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. The Open Systems Interconnection model is a standardization model that applies to communications across a telecommunications or computing system. It lays out seven layers of abstraction, starting with the actual physical layer—such as the wires or air waves used—through to the application layer that the user interacts with. CIRA’s view is that any regulation should be proportional to the offense, and executed at the layer closest to the end user. Intervention in lower layers can result in net neutrality abuses or dysfunction in the daily operation of the global internet.
CIRA’s position on the topic of ISP-level blocking is that it should be limited to only exceptional circumstances or it risks limiting the openness of the internet. It’s why we intervened in the FairPlay proposal made to the CRTC by a coalition of organizations led by Bell Canada. The proposal was that a new not-for-profit organization, the Independent Piracy Review Agency, be formed to monitor websites offering possibly pirated, copyright-protected material and then require ISPs to block access to them. CIRA argued that Canada already has copyright protections in place and blocking sites at the network level would be like using a hammer to kill a fly and could end up causing much more damage to lawful activity than ever intended. The push for website-blocking was stalled when the CRTC ruled that it didn’t have jurisdiction to create the framework as requested by the coalition.
CIRA also intervened in the case involving Canada’s first-ever court-issued website blocking injunction. Made by the Federal Court of Canada in November 2019, the injunction responded to a lawsuit filed by a group of broadcasting companies (including Groupe TVA, Bell, and Rogers, amongst others) against IPTV provider GoldTV for copyright infringement. CIRA lent its technical expertise to the Federal Court of Appeal at a hearing in March, which considered TekSavvy Solutions’ appeal of the injunction. The court is expected to make a ruling by summer 2021. At issue is whether court-ordered website blocking in Canada is proportionate and consistent with copyright and telecommunications law and international practices.
The year ahead will see the various stakeholders involved in the internet attempt to sort out where exactly accountability lies in taking action against the spread of illegal content online. In April, the federal government announced consultations on a new copyright framework for online intermediaries, and it appears website blocking is back on the table. Whether it is enacted by the web platforms, ISPs, new regulators, or the police, there will be different implications for the relationship Canadians have with the internet.
Fighting Cyber Attacks: CRTC botnet-blocking consultation
Whether ISPs should block the spread of illegal content on the web is still up for debate, but ISPs are already an important player in blocking cyber attacks. An unfortunate side effect of the internet’s openness is that many malicious actors abuse it to make money. If cyber threats were left unchecked by ISPs, they would have tremendous negative impacts on the resilience of our networks, and, by extension, all internet users. Despite the best efforts of all cybersecurity stakeholders—including ISPs—denial-of-service attacks, ransomware, and botnet-infected networks are still a reality.
Today, ISPs make decisions about how and when security filtering is executed. Lately, governments around the world have been considering how to be more proactive about protecting internet users from hackers. In January, the CRTC opened a consultation on a framework to protect Canada’s internet infrastructure and its users. The framework proposes allowing ISPs to continue to filter botnet traffic, but the activity would be subjected to new rules and oversight to mitigate the risk of regulatory overreach.
Canadians broadly support giving ISPs and other network operators the authority to block websites that facilitate cyber attacks, with 84 per cent supporting such a measure and 57 per cent strongly supporting it. However, Canadians also want to see limits put on website blocking to ensure that the CRTC’s framework does not create a slippery slope towards content blocking online. Half of Canadians agree that website blocking is an extreme measure and should only be used as a last resort.
CIRA offers Canadians tools to defend against cyber attacks such as CIRA DNS Firewall for large organizations and enterprises, and CIRA Canadian Shield for families and individuals. But the sheer scale of cyber threats requires that more action be taken. Botnets are the source of a huge amount of damage done to individual internet users and businesses, with losses mounting due to identity theft and ransomware.
Recently, CIRA submitted input to the CRTC on principles guiding the formation of a win-win framework that provides internet security while also protecting the fundamental freedoms of Canadians. Any network-level framework that is introduced should be voluntary for internet users with a simple way to opt-out of any filtering.
The decision to block a specific cyber threat should not be made by just one actor or organization, as that would create a single point of failure in the framework. Instead, different certified parties should submit block lists to be analyzed and compared by decision-makers. These decision-makers should be independent of ISPs and provide transparency about what is on the list and why. Blocking should only be done when no other less intrusive method of intervention is available.
If the CRTC adopts those principles in developing its framework, it will be upholding two of its core missions in safeguarding net neutrality and protecting user privacy.
Preserving Personal Matters: Privacy and data protection
Even when their information is not under threat from cyber criminals, Canadians feel that their privacy is at risk when simply surfing the web. In what author Shoshana Zuboff coined as “surveillance capitalism,” technology giants with ad-based business models are competing to serve up the most personalized and effective ads, which puts a premium on any relevant behavioural or demographic data available. Accordingly, 84 per cent of Canadians say they are concerned that businesses with access to customer data are willingly sharing it with third parties without consent; about half are very concerned.
84% concerned that businesses willingly share users' personal data with third parties without consent
The federal government looks ready to act on that concern. In November 2020, Bill C-11, the Digital Charter Implementation Act, was introduced which raised hopes that the Privacy Commissioner may finally be provided with a stick rather than a carrot. The bill includes order-making power and the ability to recommend administrative penalties up to $25 million for a certain set of infractions. Consumers would also request that their data be deleted by a company that holds it. There will also be a host of new requirements for companies that require them to demonstrate they are handling personal information responsibly.
Fifty-four per cent of Canadians are aware of the federal privacy law (the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act) that covers how businesses are required to handle personal information. Even more Canadians, 56 per cent, believe it is likely that a majority of businesses in Canada comply with federal privacy legislation. Of that, 45 per cent think it is only somewhat likely. Another 35 per cent of Canadians think it is not likely that they comply with the law. When businesses do fail to comply, Canadians are more likely to believe that they hardly ever or never face penalties, with 40 per cent saying so, than they are to believe that they usually face penalties, with 30 per cent saying so.
Since becoming the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Daniel Therrien has been vocal about the need to sharpen the watch dog’s teeth. At present, the commissioner must bring a violator to federal court to compel enforcement and otherwise can only make recommendations. The office can also only investigate when a complaint has been filed, rather than taking the initiative itself.
Most Canadians support Commissioner Therrien’s position that his office requires more powers to be effective, with 77 per cent supporting a change to the office’s legal authority to provide it order-making and fine-issuing powers. But that is down slightly from last year, when 82 per cent of Canadians were in support.
Canadians want more support for privacy and cybersecurity
77% support new powers for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner
76% believe government should provide resources to protect businesses from cyber attacks
67% support government spending on cybersecurity for Canadian businesses
Canadians also want more done in support of national cybersecurity, with 76 per cent saying that the government should provide resources and infrastructure to business specifically to protect from cyber attacks. A two-thirds majority also supports government spending to fund cybersecurity infrastructure for Canadian businesses. Of that portion, 27 per cent strongly support the spending and 40 per cent somewhat support it.
Another decision still ahead of the Canadian government is whether it will take action to ban Huawei technology from being deployed in new telecommunications networks. The U.S. and other allies have already decided to block the Chinese-owned firm. Two-thirds of Canadians say they are concerned about potential cybersecurity risks from foreign-owned network technologies, with one-third saying they are very concerned and another one-third saying they are somewhat concerned.
66% concerned about cybersecurity risks from foreign-owned network technology companies like Huawei
Canadians would also prefer that government data be stored and transmitted in Canada only, with 54 per cent saying it is critically important and 81 per cent overall saying it is at least somewhat important. CIRA supports Canadians in that assertion and advocates that Canada bolster its domestic internet infrastructure, using Internet Exchange Points, to limit the extent to which traffic transmitted between Canadian entities transits through the U.S. in the process.
Canadians face many risks involving their personal information when they use the internet. With new legislation before the House of Commons, and an increased awareness of the threat of cyber criminals, the country is on the precipice of a totally new approach to protecting personal information. The implications include a new commitment of resources, and a new power structure in terms of who can call the shots online.
The Economics of Journalism: Supporting news
For as long as Canadians have been searching on Google and doom-scrolling on Facebook, news media links have been a popular source of information. Just like anyone else using the web, those firms didn’t have to pay for the right to link to that content. However, that may soon change based on the plans of Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. The Minister is pursuing legislation that requires large technology firms, which dominate the online advertising market, to compensate news outlets for linking to them. While similar concepts have already been implemented or are under discussion in other jurisdictions, this would be a first for Canada. The government opened its consultation on a modern copyright framework for online intermediaries April 14 and will be collecting submissions until the end of May.
Transferring money from tech giants to news publishers would be a direct response to media companies that say these firms have disrupted their business models. Prior to the dominance of digital technology, media companies relied heavily on advertising to collect revenue. Ad buyers that bought space in a newspaper or a half-minute commercial slot during a news broadcast provided the funds media needed to pay journalists and all the costs associated with creating news. However, when Google and Facebook disrupted the advertising industry to provide digital ads that were highly measurable and targeted, advertisers were quick to shift their budgets to the new approach. Today, Google and Facebook dominate the digital ads market, and many media firms opt to work with them to get a slice of the pie. By imposing a link tax or licensing regime, the federal government is looking to create a new revenue stream for news media.
It’s not an original idea. Australia has implemented similar legislation, and France has also adopted a model that involves licensing fees for links. The European Union adopted an ancillary copyright law for news publishers in 2016; colloquially called the ‘link tax’ or ‘Google tax.’ However, the concept of paying for links is antithetical to the open principles of the world wide web. Since it was created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, the concept of free linking between different HTML documents underpinned the utility and core value proposition of the web.
The technology giants have responded with their own plans to pay news publishers in some regions, with Facebook signing a deal with News Corp. in Australia. Google is launching its News Showcase program in the U.K. and Australia in February. While these approaches are different, the common theme is that journalism is critical to a healthy democracy and news media need a new source of funding to succeed. If the professional news sector continues to shrink, it will mean fewer fact-checkers to help keep the surge of disinformation in check.
Canadians mostly support the idea of government action to help news media outlets deliver local news, with 58 per cent saying they support it. Of that portion, one in five Canadians strongly supports government action. Only 13 per cent oppose it and 24 per cent neither supported or opposed it.
While most Canadians support new funding for news (58%), they are divided on how to do it
52% support forcing social media platforms to pay news publishers for linking to stories
52% support requiring platforms to collect GST/HST and funding news from general revenue
43% support increased funding for the CBC
43% support creating a special fund for new media businesses and start-ups
When asked what government actions they support for helping the news media deliver local news, Canadians offered tepid support for the idea of creating a mandatory licensing fee that requires social media platforms to pay each time they include a news article on their platform. While 52 per cent supported the measure, 23 per cent said they opposed it and 25 per cent said they neither supported it nor opposed it.
CIRA’s concern with implementing a link licensing fee for social media platforms is that it could have a chilling effect on how often Canadian .CA domains are shared on major platforms. For example, if a fee must be paid for every link made by a user to Macleans.ca or TheTyee.ca, it’s possible that platforms like Facebook could put a cap on the number of links that can be shared to a particular site in a certain period of time. Facebook has already demonstrated that it’s willing to block news links from being posted to the site, as it briefly did in Australia before ultimately making a deal.
There are other options to fund journalism that don’t fundamentally break the concept of the open internet. Canadians liked an option to collect GST/HST from social media platforms on their digital advertising and subscription sales, with 52 per cent saying they support the measure. Forty-three per cent of Canadians support increasing funding for the CBC, and the same portion support creating a special fund for new media business and startups in Canada. The 2021 federal budget introduced a 3 per cent sales tax on digital services that rely on data and content contributions from Canadian users, applying only to firms that gross more than $1.13 billion in annual revenue. The government may change the tax if and when an international agreement is made on taxing tech giants.
Giving Voice to Artists: Supporting Canada’s cultural industries
News media isn’t the only cultural sector that the government is considering new legislation to support. With Bill C-10, the Liberals are looking to modernize the Broadcasting Act for the digital age. For decades, audio and visual content broadcast via radio and television have been subject to regulation by the CRTC. One part of the requirements is that a certain amount of production must be committed to Canadian Content (CanCon), and distributors using cable, satellite, or IPTV must also contribute to the Canadian Media Fund based on a set percentage of the value of transactions between broadcasters. However, similar multimedia content carried to Canadians via the internet – on services like Netflix or Disney Plus – have been exempt from such a requirement so far. Critics question whether it is wise to apply the same rules that were created in a three-channel TV universe decades ago to the internet, which has thrived and created exponential value due in part to its open nature.
Canada’s cultural sector argues that the CRTC should update CanCon requirements for the modern age or else there is a risk of seeing Canada’s unique voice drowned out in the new entertainment world of digital streaming platforms. They say their revenues for creating content are shrinking as the audience continues to shift towards the new medium. But critics point out that despite a lack of requirements, streaming platforms are choosing to use Canadian production studios to create content and investment levels in the industry are at an all-time high, with the number of popular shows and movies made in Toronto and Vancouver a testament to that fact.
Most Canadians support government action to stimulate production of home-grown content, with 59 per cent saying so. Only 10 per cent are opposed to the idea, and 25 per cent are neither in support nor opposition to government action.
Most Canadians (59%) support government action to stimulate Canadian content production. Here are the funding mechanisms they support:
56% support requiring foreign services to collect GST/HST and directing some of those funds to CanCon
54% support directing proceeds from wireless spectrum auctions to the creation and promotion of CanCon
In terms of what action the government should take, 56 per cent of Canadians support requiring foreign-owned online services to collect GST/HST from their subscribers and directing some of the funds collected towards the creation and promotion of CanCon. Canadians also support directing some of the proceeds raised from the federal government’s wireless spectrum auction towards the creation and promotion of Canadian content, with 54 per cent saying they support it. Nearly half of Canadians also approve of supporting Canada’s creative industries with government funding raised from general tax revenues.
It’s worth noting that despite no requirements to commit production resources to Canada, many digital streaming platforms have still done so. For example, in February, Netflix announced it would open a new office in Canada that is dedicated to commissioning local originals. Netflix reports to have spent $2.5 billion CAD in Canada since 2017.
Also at issue is whether Bill C-10’s content regime will apply to user activity. If so, videos on YouTube, TikTok and even podcasts could be exposed to the CRTC’s content and discoverability regulation.
Broadband Equity: Internet speed and measurement
Canadians have lived through various phases of government-imposed lockdowns for more than a year during the pandemic. One side-effect of this is the internet is more crucial in our lives than ever before. With in-person activities still a risk, the internet is the sole conduit for many to continue to work, continue their education, access commercial and government services, and stay connected with family and friends. Yet for many in Canada, the internet has not been a life line during the pandemic, it has been a headache. Slow speeds, inconsistent availability or in some cases, no internet access at all, continue to be the daily reality for far too many Canadians.
The digital divide is most exaggerated for Canadians that live in rural areas where market conditions make it difficult to justify commercial investment to provide broadband internet access. New data shows that rural internet speeds were roughly one-tenth of urban speeds for most of the first year of the pandemic. While we always knew that Canada’s rural populations required improved access to broadband, the pandemic has made it even more painfully urgent to address the problem.
Elon Musk’s Starlink makes a compelling case that satellites may be the future when it comes to providing broadband internet to rural communities around the world, but there is no silver bullet solution for a country like Canada. Funding aimed at providing broadband of the wired and fixed wireless variety are coming from several national bodies that promise to see millions more Canadians receive high-speed service in the coming years.
The government program with the most available funding is the $2.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund provided by Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada. This fund aims to bring high-speed internet at 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 10 Mbps upload speed (50/10) to rural and remote communities. The call for applications closed in March, but proposals will also be considered for a $150 million rapid response stream dedicated to projects that can be deployed quickly and make immediate connectivity improvements. The 2021 federal budget committed $1 billion of the overall funding, to be disbursed over six years to support a more rapid rollout.
Achieving the promised bandwidth speeds consistently will be critical to the success of the projects that receive funding. However, delivering on promised speeds isn’t a guarantee even among commercial ISPs serving well-populated areas. ISPs market their service tiers as “up to” certain speeds, but when asked how often they feel they receive those speeds, only one-third of Canadians said it was most of the time or all of the time. Another 21 per cent said it was only some of the time, 13 per cent said it was rarely, and 6 per cent said never. About one-quarter of Canadians said they didn’t know either way. (Of note, Quebec residents were most likely to say they received the top speeds, with 45 per cent saying they received it all or most of the time. Albertans were the least likely to say so, at just 23 per cent.) Canadians are right to feel that their internet service isn’t living up to the marketing claims, and we’ll examine why later in this report.
Another source of funding for broadband to rural communities comes from the CRTC. Its Broadband Fund is dedicated to “closing the digital divide in Canada” and seeks to provide 50/10 Mbps internet service, as well as LTE mobile service to rural communities. It will disperse $750 million over five years and it announced its second round of funded projects in March. Finally, the Canadian Infrastructure Bank’s broadband initiative has $2 billion set aside for low-cost loans that will go towards projects that connect more than 750,000 households and businesses in underserved communities. There are also an assortment of provincial funds aimed at stimulating broadband buildout across the country.
With all that money from public coffers flowing into internet infrastructure, it stands to reason that taxpayers will want to know if the outcome meets the goals. Eight out of 10 Canadians say they think it’s important that publicly funded internet projects be tested after completion to ensure the networks deliver the promised speeds. Another 11 per cent were neutral and only 4 per cent thought it was not important.
8 in 10 feel publicly-funded broadband projects should be tested to ensure they actually deliver their promised speeds
CIRA can help evaluate the return on that broadband investment. Our Internet Performance Test has surpassed one million tests run in Canada, providing internet subscribers an accurate and unbiased source to test their download and upload speeds. The platform has also been used through our Smart Community Performance Testing program, launched in 2015. It provides communities with a custom testing portal that contains regional breakdowns of connectivity. More than 887 municipalities plus an additional 199 Indigenous communities have been covered by our portals. We also have experience working to map out connectivity in rural areas, accomplished through different partnerships made in places like Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Prince Edward Island, amongst others.
What is Truth: Disinformation and ‘fake news’
It seems that virtually every critical debate we have as a society is now impacted by disinformation. While disinformation is not particularly new, the internet, and specifically social media, have provided a platform to amplify it in a way that, unfortunately, shapes public perception.
In last year’s report, we detailed how disinformation affected the Canadian federal election. In the most recent U.S. Presidential Election, disinformation was so rampant that major social media platforms put new measures in place to filter it out, marking a departure from the previous norm of a hands-off approach to the content shared by their users.
Now, as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and is pushing a historic immunization effort, disinformation is once again having a negative impact on public discourse. Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 disinformation distorted either the seriousness of the virus or promoted totally baseless, and sometimes even dangerous, false treatments for the disease. Now, disinformation is being spread about the efficacy of vaccines, the risks associated with them, and the intentions of governments that distribute them. With the immunization effort crucial for Canadians to return to normal life and the economy to improve, the risks of disinformation are most dire.
It’s worth taking a moment to define disinformation, which is false information or lies spread with the intent to deceive. It differs from misinformation, which is incorrect or false information that is spread mistakenly or simply because it’s believed to be true. The distinction between the two similar terms lies in the intent of the author. Often when we talk about the concept of disinformation in everyday life, we refer to it as fake news.
More than three-quarters of Canadians says they come across fake news stories at least sometimes, with 21 per cent saying they come across them often or all of the time. That level of occurrence has 72 per cent of Canadians at least somewhat concerned with the spread of fake news in Canada, with 30 per cent very concerned about it. When it comes to the spread of fake news on social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, 88 per cent of Canadians believe it is at least somewhat of a problem, with 55 per cent saying that it is definitely a problem.
78% come across fake news
88% feel the spread of fake news on social media is a problem
Despite concerns about disinformation, it appears the government does not plan to address it with expected upcoming legislation that regulates content posted online. During a webcast this past March, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said he views the eSafety Commissioner in Australia as a good model to follow in this regard. A new regulator in Canada that governs online platforms could be given auditing powers and issue fines for non-compliance. Part of the regulator’s requirements would be a 24-hour takedown request mechanism with an appeals process for content that is removed in error. At least to start with, the regulator wouldn’t touch disinformation, but focus on content that’s already illegal to post online such as hate speech and child sexual abuse materials. However, Guilbeault left room for disinformation to be added to the future regulator’s purview at some point down the road, saying he’d like a system that is able to evolve.
The difficulty with governments regulating misinformation online is that it is not difficult to see how such a power could be abused. For every well-meaning government looking to squash inaccurate health information, there are countless historical examples of governments that distort the truth via propaganda or restricting public discourse. It’s for that reason that in a democratic society, government has stayed out of regulating the truth and professional news media have played an important role in fact-checking and education.
Most Canadians are confident they can spot fake news stories online, with 80 per cent saying they are at least somewhat confident they could do so. That’s up from 73 per cent of Canadians that said the same in last year’s survey. Still, 56 per cent of Canadians say they have probably been taken in by a fake news item.
80% are confident in their ability to detect fake news online
56% say they've been taken in by a fake news story
Earlier in this report, we discussed the challenges facing news media related to a lack of funding and the dominance of tech giants in the online advertising market. The effect of that is a drastically reduced media industry and fewer journalists working to shine a light on disinformation. CIRA believes that a digitally literate and well-informed populace is crucial for a democratic society. That’s why we’ve partnered with MediaSmarts on a number of different initiatives to improve digital literacy dating back to 2009. CIRA also supports other digital literacy initiatives through our annual $1.25 million grants program, where applicants can receive up to $100,000 in support.
There is also a role to play for the social media platforms that host much of this disinformation. Just under nine in ten Canadians say that social media companies should have at least some responsibility to monitor and remove fake news from their websites/platforms. Half of Canadians believe the platforms should have complete responsibility for it.
At present, social media platforms that have acknowledged their role in managing disinformation are in the early stages of forming a clear governance approach. Some are putting together independent bodies that will objectively make decisions about what content should be taken down. Still, not all social media platforms are embracing the same mentality. Without standard regulation, there is always room for other platforms to emerge and promote their lack of content moderation as a feature, not a bug.
Since its inception, the open internet has driven untold innovation and benefits both economic and creative. However, Canada’s internet is at cross-roads where the drive for regulation appears set to put the days of the “anything-goes” internet behind us. What’s still ahead of us is a choice to put Canadians first when it comes to internet governance, and retain the spirit of the open internet while adapting it to the realities of modern democracy.
In 2019, CIRA invited stakeholders from across our industry to adopt our vision for the future of Canada’s internet, one driven by three core principles of openness, trust, and being people-centred. The internet’s future is Canada’s future and that’s why everyone’s voice matters in designing the policy that governs it. The government must perform extensive consultation before making the decisions that are fast approaching.
Measures intended to promote Canadian creators, fund journalism, and engender trust in online content must be weighed against the risks they pose to the open internet. The open internet has been an overwhelming force that has driven economic growth, promoted community engagement, and provided a channel for marginalized voices; we must tread lightly.
CIRA continues to believe in the internet as an overwhelming force for good in the world. With the right vision, Canada can become a global leader in the immense opportunity it heralds for our future.
About CIRA and this report
The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) is a member-based not-for-profit organization, best known for managing the .CA domain on behalf of all Canadians, developing and implementing policies that support Canada’s internet community and representing the .CA registry internationally. We are building programs, products and services that leverage all the internet has to offer to help build a better online Canada, while providing a safe, secure and trusted online experience to all Canadians.
The Strategic Counsel provided CIRA with public opinion research in order to examine Canadian views on issues relating to media literacy, internet privacy, cybersecurity, and governance in support of the Canadian Internet Governance Forum (CIGF).
An online panel was used to survey a total of 1,254 Canadian internet users (age 18+) between the dates of February 19 – March 1, 2021. The total sample is proportionate to population by gender, age and region. You can find the full survey results here.
Findings build on previous research found in CIRA’s Internet Trends and CIGF research from 2016-2020.