Online News Act: Bitter Standoff Involving Federal Government, Canadian Press, and Web Giants
Is Trudeau’s Controversial Bill C-18 Truly Promoting Fairness Within the Digital News Market?
Photo via Steve Nease for The Cagle Post.
“People in Canada can’t see this content — In response to Canadian government legislation, news content can’t be viewed in Canada.” All accounts targeted by the Meta ban now display this short message, a token of the censorship exerted by Big Tech after the enactment of Bill C-18. The reactionary show of force suggests that the Web Giants will not go down without a fight, and many believe that, by going forward with the aforementioned legislation, the Liberals tried to bite off more than they could chew. Nevertheless, Big Tech is not the only contester of the infamous law, which sparked controversy after controversy in the months following its disclosure to the general public.
The adoption of Bill C-18 reflects the slow decline of the news industry and the struggling of newsrooms throughout the country. According to data collected by the Local News Research Project, more than 250 newsrooms have closed over the past ten years, a phenomenon which can be vastly attributed to insufficient resources. As it often is the case, those who suffered the most are small, local papers, many having to go to great lengths in order to withstand the crisis. This June, Bell Canada Enterprises announced the laying off of 1,300 workers, totalling 3% of their workforce, among which stood a number of prominent Parliament Hill journalists. Although this represents a historic cut for BCE Inc., the very existence of the news corporation is not threatened at the moment, as opposed to some community periodicals who may not see another year.
June 22 marked the first instance where a Canadian Act overtly challenged tech giants’ turf when the Act received royal assent. The infamous Online News Act, which mandates Big Tech to compensate Canadian news outlets for the revenues generated by traffic on their website when accessed from Google and Meta’s respective platforms, is scheduled to go into effect this December. The Bill, often referred to as a so-called link tax, establishes that for every link to news sites displayed on either Google or Meta’s digital spaces, a federal-set fee will be collected and reallocated to the Canadian news sector. The exact value of these compensations has yet to be clarified, as Bill C-18 requires Web Giants to hold individual negotiation sessions with each outlet uploading news material on the corporations’ servers. Nonetheless, the Act stipulates that an initial 4% of both Meta and Google’s annual profits from Canadian searches be redistributed to Canadian publications and News organizations, which would amount to $234 million ($172 million from Google and $62 million from Meta). The above formula, presented by the unified tripartite front made up of Trudeau’s Liberal Party, the NPD, and the BQ, leaves many unsatisfied whatsoever.
One of the most notable issues behind the Online News Act pertains to small publications, who find themselves (once more) at a great competitive disadvantage. As stated in Bill C-18, the factor which dictates the compensation’s figure per outlet is the number of full-time employees. A model that, as many experts denounced, is not viable. Research Chair in Internet and e-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa Michael Geist, indeed raises the point that “the standard creates an advantage for those who structure themselves primarily through full-time journalists rather than with freelancers or other contributors.” For the small, digital-first community papers, the result of the legislation’s approach is a gain close to null, as most of their writers are not regarded as full-time staff. The larger lobbying corporations, among which Bell, Rogers, the CBC and Postmedia stand, to name only a few, would end up with the upper hand, especially when considering that these organizations are widely state-funded. According to Globe and Mail reporter Marie Woolfe, the CBC would be swallowing the largest share of the Online News Act’s returns, additionally to their yearly subventions. Throughout the 21–22 fiscal year, the corporation received a grand total of $1.2 billion in federal funding; the extra revenue generated by Bill C-18 would therefore be a gateway to swelling the already great discrepancy between the Davids and Goliaths of the industry. The current harmful status quo would persist, showcasing a certain incoherence when considering the bill’s motives and effects.
If most news corporations adopted a pro-Bill C-18 stand, many journalists established that the Act is inherently flawed. Geist indeed argues that the infamous 4% is “picked out of thin air” and “would be used by other countries as a global minimum for similar payments.” Colette Brin, professor in the Département d’information et de communication and director of the Centre d’études sur les médias at Laval University, further exposes the arbitrary foundation of the bill. Brin, when interviewed regarding Bill C-18 on Tout un matin, established the need for a long-term public support program to ensure the sustainability of small newsrooms. The professor also shed light on the current funding crisis threatening the perenniality of news outlets, stressing that the measures stated by the Online News Act are insufficient to counteract the extreme precarity of the news industry.
While opinions diverge within the journalistic profession, Big Tech’s mindset could not be more transparent: Bill C-18 is inviable, and must be brought to a halt no matter what. Both Meta and Google deployed heavy artillery in an attempt to stop Ottawa from going through with the Act. Meta proceeded to censor hundreds of publications’ accounts (including The Plant’s), declaring on August 1 that “[they] have begun the process of ending news availability in Canada.” Google, on the other hand, qualified the Act as “unworkable” and announced their decision to “[remove] links to Canadian news from [their] Search, News, and Discover products,” as well as to conclude the operations of Google News Showcase in Canada. As a result of the Web Giants’ disproportionate reactionary stand, often viewed as both an intimidation campaign and negotiation tactic, the Parliament chose to suspend all federal advertising on Meta-owned platforms. Quebec Premier François Legault followed in Ottawa’s footsteps by reciprocating the measure at the provincial level, categorically tweeting, “No company is above the law.”
Still, the pulling of governmental advertising remains more of an ideological counterblast than of an effective one, as the ensuing net deficit amounts to approximately C$10 million for Meta – i.e., a drop of water in the Pacific Ocean for the tech corporation. Naturally, news outlets would be severely harmed if Meta and Google went through with the ban, experts presaging a 50% decrease, on average, in web traffic on the outlets’ Internet pages according to a statement issued by Village Media CEO Jeff Elgie. Although quantitative data is lacking due to the recency of said events, publications around the country have reported that fluctuations in online traffic are already spurring substantial financial losses.
While on paper the Online News Act primarily tackles monetary issues, both philosophical and ethical questions come into play. Meta’s president, Nick Clegg, considers Bill C-18 to rely on a fundamentally flawed premise, claiming that “Meta does not benefit unfairly from people sharing links to news content on our platform.” Clegg further stated that their platforms are in reality doing Canadian outlets a favour by redirecting traffic from either Instagram or Facebook pages to the publications’ websites. Another concern raised by the Web Giants consists in the individual negotiation of exclusive deals with every organization whose content is featured on their platforms. For instance, as part of Google’s News Showcase program, the multinational had negotiated agreements covering over 150 publications across Canada. Under the Online News Act, these deals will all have to be ratified and independently renegotiated altogether. The ensuing discussions are likely to stretch out over months, representing a considerable waste of time and resources for all parties involved.
Another of Meta’s core arguments is that its platforms’ main purposes do not comprise the distributing and promoting of news, therefore making it illogical for such a profit-sucking legislation to fall down upon their heads. Yet, whether news content serves or not Meta’s initial intentions is fairly irrelevant as users’ media consumption habits dictate the content that is posted, shared, and recommended on digital platforms. As for these habits, roughly one out of three Canadians uses social media or Google as a primary source of information. This proportion is shown to be even greater among adults under 35, therefore raising critical democratic concerns when it comes to accessing information. Without reliable publications online, experts claim, disinformation, fabricated news, and hateful content will take over the relinquished virtual space, thus endangering the credibility of the press. Besides, the censorship exerted by Meta alludes to a rather disturbing matter: the apparent absence of means to fight the brute, unregulated power of Big Tech. As Shani Laskin astutely expressed in McGill’s The Tribune, “The fact that Google and Meta can single-handedly make local news inaccessible to over thirty-eight million people indicates that changes need to be made in digital media consumption.”
Nowadays, the most effective ways to support news outlets are to subscribe to their content, to visit their webpage, and to download their apps. Even if, as previously mentioned, The Plant’s account has been repeatedly plagued by Meta’s ban, our team will pursue its consistent, independent, quality news coverage of issues that cater to Dawson students and community.
The Plant remains accessible at https://www.theplantnews.com, and a fresh Instagram page, @theplantdawson, has been created in an attempt at holding out against Meta’s censorship. If you wish to help your student-run publication outlive the Online News Act madness, contribute by sending your work to our email, sign up for the paper’s newsletter, follow the Plant on TikTok and Instagram, come visit us in room 2C.12, or pick up a copy of our monthly print editions on campus in the upper atrium.