Discoverability, funding, IP ownership, and cultural sovereignty are topics at the forefront of how and to what degree streaming companies should be put under government regulations. As today’s over-the-top streaming platforms continue to navigate emerging domestic rules and regulations, jurisdictions outside the U.S. have started to introduce new content and funding obligations for these services.
The ability to transcend borders has long been a defining characteristic of video streaming platforms: Anyone with an internet connection could view all the content. Initially, incumbent broadcasters and traditional distribution channels faced massive disruption as consumer preference shifted away from linear channels to the choice of what to watch and listen to from hundreds of options. With the wide adoption of digital distribution technology, streaming services became content creators themselves, while traditional content producers launched non-linear platforms to compete.
As is often the case with rapid technological advancements, legislation and regulation are now playing catch up. Local players in global markets have long made the case that the playing field must be leveled against the size of U.S.-based streaming companies, and officials have started to listen. Regulations are evolving to include localized content mandates and participation in domestic industry. Here’s how it’s playing out.
Europeans make early moves
In 2018, the European Union passed the Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive which included stipulations that the streaming platforms must offer a 30% quota of European content to European consumers. It also built a framework that allowed individual countries to mandate the streamers allocate revenues back into domestic production.
Right now, France is one of the countries with strongest local content rules. Streaming platforms must reinvest 20 to 25% of the domestic revenues back into French production. In France and elsewhere in Europe, since the regulations have been in place, Netflix has reached or exceeded the 30% local content requirements.
English language markets feel the squeeze
Because of the cultural juggernaut that is the U.S., other English-language regions have long felt compelled to shore up local production with support from their respective governments. This trend continues to be a flash point in debates about government overreach.
At the end of January, the Canadian senate passed Bill C-11 or the “Online Streaming Act,” an updated version of the country’s Broadcasting Act, which will allow the federal regulator to include international streaming services in its powers to levy fees and control how content is displayed. It’s expected to become law within a few weeks. Canadian governments have long sought to counter the influence of the cultural output south of its border, and the legislation attempts to extend those rules into the online space.
Similarly, Australia announced its own new “National Cultural Policy” around the same time. While it doesn’t outline the exact plans to regulate online streaming services, the Australian government laid out its goals to address the decline in local broadcasting revenues and bolster the creation of domestic productions.
While the report acknowledged the level of quality and popularity of the current slate of Australian content on the platforms, “these services have no requirements to make Australian content available on their platforms. The ready availability of mass content produced in other countries, particularly the United States, risks drowning out the voices of Australian storytellers,” read the Australian government’s cultural policy plan “Revive.”
While no longer part of the AVMS, the UK’s government continues to investigate the creation of rules so that the Office of Communication (Ofcom) will have jurisdiction over overseas streaming services. This recently came to a head when complaints about the Netflix docuseries featuring Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had no official avenues to be heard.
Canada’s new legislation stands out
The proposed legislation north of the border has faced headwinds from entities both large and small because of the unique nature of the proposed laws. “C-11 is a bit of an outlier. In that it extends to user generated content on platforms like YouTube or Tik Tok. The European example does not,” said the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet and E-commerce law, Michael Geist.
Major pushback has resulted in the inclusion of user generated content and subsequent amendments have been put forward to avoid some of the issues with attempting to put all online content under the Canadian regulatory umbrella.
In September, Disney and Spotify asked the federal government to be more flexible about what it considered “Canadian content.” The streaming services warned that certain material, while ostensibly produced in Canada with a Canadian cast, wouldn’t count under the current rules, which include Canadian ownership of intellectual properties.
However, it’s worth noting that trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) include provisions that protect the ability of companies to trade in audiovisual services across the Canada-U.S. border. Already, the U.S. embassy has expressed reservations about the proposed laws violating non-discrimination terms of the free trade agreements signed by the two countries.
While the bill is slated to pass the legislature, much of the specifics will need to be determined by the arms length content regulator the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC). So the final rules and the structure of the regulatory framework remains unclear and will be subject to a public consultation process.
Despite the efforts in international English-language markets to avoid being drowned out, English language markets still generally benefit from the sympatico of shared language with the largest content producing sector in the world.
“Those English markets have had significant success, attracting investment from large streaming services and large production companies,” said Geist. “To Canada’s case, it’s a thriving sector that’s based in part on tax, [and] part on proximity to the U.S. market. So I don’t know that that necessarily suggests that what you need is more protection.”