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Bill C-18 The Online News Act: What’s new?

Published: 2023/11/14 Written by: Elliot Wyman

Click here to listen to the podcast commentary on this issue

Major regulation for Online Intermediaries concerning News coverage

It worked for Australia, why don’t we do it too?

It’s 2019, and the Canadian Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau, just doled out a $595 million dollar bailout to certain approved news publishers. Ouch.

2021 comes around, and Australia proposes a law that would force companies such as Google and Facebook (now Meta) to pay media companies for stories appearing on their sites. Facebook protests this deal, blocking all news on its platform across Australia, but in the end the law is passed and news remains on Facebook.

The following year, the government is still being pressured to support digital news media, which is not improving economically, and decides to follow Australia’s lead.

In April 5, 2022, Bill C-18 has its first reading in the House of Commons, the first step in the process to turn a proposed Bill into a law, or use said Bill to modify an existing law.

The bill is titled “An Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada”. It outlines the following objectives, summarised as:

  • To regulate digital news intermediaries (think Google or Meta) to enhance fairness in the Canadian digital news marketplace and contribute to its sustainability
  • To introduce a new bargaining framework to secure the fair compensation to support news businesses

With phrasing such as “principles of freedom of expression and journalistic independence”, things seem virtuous and reasonable at this point.

Although this sparked significant debate both for and against the Bill, what didn’t happen was Meta blocking news, like it did in Australia, which forced the Australian  government to add concessions to their laws. Now it’s June 2022, and the Canadian Bill has become law.

The government responded to the blocked news links by stopping to advertise on Facebook and Instagram and encouraging others to do the same. The boycott has had little effect as the Liberal party is still advertising on the platforms with a new round of ads this week, the Prime Minister is still posting on the platforms, and reports indicate that Facebook has not experienced a reduction in user activity. In fact, reports suggest that the experience on Facebook without news has improved.

While the government is still talking tough, the law has been an utter disaster, leading to millions in lost revenues with cancelled deals, reduced traffic for Canadian media sites, declining investment in media in Canada, and few options to salvage this mess.

Google, Meta respond

We don’t need Canadian media, nor the precedence Canadian law sets

It’s important to note here, that there are two ways to comply with this law, one is to continue to do exactly what you’re doing (as Google and Meta), and to come to the table and negotiate compensations. Now, some reports estimate that these compensations will likely be a minimum of 4% of search and social media revenues in Canada, for a minimum of $234 million, and this is reportedly a minimum that is likely to be exceeded in practice. The other implication of this compensation is the payee requirement, that amounts to CBC likely being the biggest beneficiary by a significant margin.

The alternative that Google and Meta can take is to simply remove this content from their platforms, in which case they wouldn’t have to do so until January of 2024. Well, Meta decided to do just that, preemptively, back in June. 0, finis, done, no more news on Facebook and Instagram, oh and it gets worse. The mechanism they’ve created to ensure they are not keeping news on their site is aggressive, and podcasts too are being blocked, as Alfred Hermida, from the school of Journalism, Writing and Media at the University of British Columbia puts it ““They’ve cast this broad net, to catch anything that potentially looks like news [and block it] and all sorts of people have been caught up in it””.

Google, on the other hand, still offers news on their platform, but has stated they will also remove this in its entirety come January. For them, they have published a few articles discussing how they’d like to see the bill improved, proposed amendments to 8 sections of the legal text of the bill, as well as broader ethical violations they think the bill is causing. These include:

  • Creating a lower standard for journalism in Canada
  • Establishing a model that will benefit large publishers over smaller ones
  • Giving regulators unprecedented influence over news

Digital Media agencies weigh-in

I don’t know who this is saving, but it’s not me

One piece of the legislation that stuck out to me before I did so is the following.

“The Act will include criteria to determine which news businesses are eligible to participate in the bargaining process. To be eligible, a news business must be a qualified Canadian journalism organisation or meet other statutory criteria that include operating in Canada and regularly employing two or more journalists in Canada.”

With this in mind, let’s take a look at a smaller news agency, The Rover.

The Rover is a crowd-funded investigative journalism project: an award-winning newsletter that covers stories you won’t find anywhere else. Reporting from Montreal, across Quebec and beyond.

It employs just three individuals, and though its founder, Christopher Curtis, claims to be an Award-winning journalist, it isn’t clear if he employs himself as one, for the sake of even being eligible to participate in the intended bargaining process.

“Without social media’s reach, I’m in trouble” – says Christopher 

“Our own leverage is the audience that we can access on social media.” “What’s happening right now is threatening my livelihood.”

Closing remarks, ethical considerations

Was this the right thing to do? 

My name is Elliot Wyman, and I am a Master’s student at HEC, studying Data Science and Business Analytics. My professional background consists of many jobs within technology, from software development to IT roles, such as serving as a Website Administrator for an online college. I mention this to be clear about my biases, before engaging in this important discussion. There are a few points I feel the most compelled to address.

  • I think it’s necessary to start with my opinion on government intervention in the free market, and although we can argue that with tech monoliths such as Meta and Google, we’re not in fact in a free market, I do believe that government shouldn’t interfere and that products need to evolve to stay alive, we don’t all still ride horses right?
  • Then we have the issues with the law itself, it sounds firmly rooted in democracy and principle, but if this really just means a paycheque for CBC, who is then indebted to the liberal government, or whichever party secures the next payment, well, I’m not interested
  • On that note, I think journalism is extremely important, especially on a local and national level, but again, what are we doing for journalists here, and could we do better?
  • To wrap up the rant on the government, it makes sense that backpedalling is a sign of weakness and that to concede to these companies is not a good tactic, but this affects people, good workers trying to create good news, it’s not a hand of poker, maybe the government should have gone back to the table, after all, if they were following Australia’s lead, that’s exactly what they did.
  • If this is an economic discussion then let’s end with an economist: Thomas Sowell once said ““There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs; and you try to get the best trade-off you can get, that’s all you can hope for.”” And with that said I suppose I’m just a little disappointed with the trade-offs, and that, as with much done by the government, we just have to wait for the next group to propose the new trade-offs to our trade-offs, and hope journalism isn’t dead by then.

Sources

https://www.parl.ca/legisinfo/en/bill/44-1/c-18

https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/44-1/bill/C-18/royal-assent

https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/pl/charter-charte/c18_1.html

https://blog.google/intl/en-ca/company-news/outreach-initiatives/an-update-on-canadas-bill-c-18-and-our-search-and-news-products/

https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/understanding-bill-c-18-canada-s-online-news-act-and-its-proposed-rules-explained-1.6488532

https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/441/CHPC/Brief/BR12044085/br-external/GoogleCanada-e.pdf

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/google-facebook-canadian-news-1.6894029

https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/meta-australia-google-news-canada-1.6925726

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