Opinion: Canada desperately needs a thoughtful news industry policy. Bill C-18 is far from it

Facebook says that if Bill C-18 is unamended then it will no longer accept links to news stories
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with reporters in Hamilton, Ont., on Tuesday, Aug 24, 2021. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

Legislative overreach and political belly-bumping may make for compelling cultural drama but neither is going to resuscitate the nation’s struggling news industry.

We refer to recent developments in the passage of the poorly conceived and dreadfully structured Online News Act (Bill C-18), currently being examined by the Senate. It forces web giants such as Google and Facebook to reach commercial deals with designated news organizations (mostly newspapers and broadcasters) to pay them for facilitating linkage to their news.

On Friday, Facebook/Meta announced that if Bill C-18 is unamended it will no longer accept links to news stories.

“A legislative framework that compels us to pay for links or content that we do not post, and which are not the reason the vast majority of people use our platform, is neither sustainable nor workable,” Lisa Laventure, a Meta spokesperson, told the Globe and Mail.

This week, Google will complete a series of tests aimed at a similar retreat from facilitating access to news through its search engine. It was excoriated by members of the House of Commons Heritage Committee on Friday for doing so.

In October, Meta wasn’t even invited to appear before the Committee until it mentioned the possibility of taking the position it now holds. When it did subsequently appear, it was apparently as a prop for a tech-lash grandstanding. Certainly, members of parliament should ask hard questions, but MPs on this committee too often confuse that duty with crude and cringeworthy cross-examination that eschews understanding and builds animus.

The web giants’ key concern is clearly the unlimited and unpredictable financial liability created by Bill C-18 in concert with grandiose preliminary demands from the broadcasting sector. Not to mention the international precedent that conceding to Canadian legislation would set.

While both companies are immensely profitable, each has recently reduced its workforce and there is no reason to think either is bluffing in taking this posture. Google, for instance, has taken similar action in Spain and since December has turned off the display of news snippets in Czechia.

The whole concept underlying this Act is wrong. Linking is free and being linked to benefits both newsmakers and online intermediaries. Most newsmakers do not wait to be picked up by a search engine but voluntarily link their news content or snippets to intermediaries in order to get wider exposure.

The real problem is with advertising and market power. Newsmakers used to finance their journalism through advertising, either product/display or classified. The latter, once responsible for as much as 40 percent of newspaper revenue, was decimated years ago by the likes of Kijiji and Craigslist. The market has now largely gone to the web giants, legacy newsmakers are suffering, and subscriptions, while helpful for quality products, can’t sustain newsrooms built for a different century.

Meanwhile, modern digital newsrooms built by innovators and entrepreneurs are at risk of becoming the babies thrown out with Bill C-18’s reactionary bath water.

The digital news intermediaries and newsmakers are in a symbiotic relationship. The intermediaries use the sources for news and the data accompanied therewith to sell targeted advertising. The newsmakers need the intermediaries so that they can be digitally accessed at no cost and expose their content and advertisers to vast audiences.

Instead of forcing them into a forced and obviously loveless marriage based on a debatable economic foundation, a simpler immediate solution is available. Google has publicly said that it is willing to pay into a fund to support journalism producers.

Why not take them up on it?

Digital platforms over a certain size (say $75 million) would have to pay a given percentage (say five percent for the sake of argument) of their gross advertising revenue into a fund administered by a board set up by key journalistic bodies in Canada representing all sectors whose primary business is news.

The proceeds—in a manner somewhat similar to the Canada Media Fund but unburdened by its subjectivity and language politics—would be paid on a per (journalist) capita basis to each organization. The government would have nothing to do with it.

Canada desperately needs a coherent, thoughtful, and multifaceted news industry policy. This fund (obviously there are ticklish details to be worked out such as who qualifies as a journalist, who appoints the board, what are the accountabilities, etc.) could be an important and collaborative first step. Rather than the contentious, head-butting, trade sanctions-tempting path the government is currently navigating, it can be quickly established, will provide revenue newsmakers require, and will avoid the unnecessary confrontations that we are witnessing.

It is time to scrap Bill C-18 and move swiftly to establish this fund as the first step in building a national framework to inspire the free, independent, responsible, and trusted journalism Canadians need in order to make sense of and organize their lives.

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