This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Taylor Owen, a McGill University professor and leading scholar on the media, internet and public policy, about Bill C-18 (the Online News Act) as well as broader policy trends with respect to the internet, social media, and how we access and consume information.
You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Taylor Owen, the Beaverbrook Chair in Media, Ethics and Communications, the founding director of The Center for Media, Technology and Democracy, and an Associate Professor in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. In these different roles, he’s emerged as one of the country’s most thoughtful and nuanced voices on the internet, media, and public policy. I’m grateful to speak with him as Parliament passes Bill C-18, the Online News Act, to get his perspective on the legislation as well as broader policy trends with respect to the internet, social media, and how we access and consume information. Taylor, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
TAYLOR OWEN: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
SEAN SPEER: Let’s start at the beginning if that’s okay. Governments around the world, including in Canada, took a hands-off approach with the internet in the 1990s. What was the rationale then for a laissez-faire approach, and what were its benefits and costs in your mind?
TAYLOR OWEN: It’s a nice way of starting, I think, because any policy conversation now I think is contextualized by that largely laissez-faire two decades almost, really.
I think there are a few things at play. One, these companies that were building the initial platforms of the internet were tremendous economic drivers. This was the new digital economy, and who could say no to that? I think they were seen as enabling democratic values initially. Who could be against that? More speech, more civic engagement, more activism, more challenging of illiberal regimes globally—all democratic goods. They were intrinsically tied to both export and domestic growth of those democratic goods.
I think political actors and parties also saw the intrinsic value of them almost before anybody else. This was a new forum through which to mobilize citizens, to recruit voters, to speak to people, to raise money. All three of those things: big economic growth, aligned with democratic values, political instrumentalization by the parties that might eventually be asked to regulate, led to a period where we just let it roll and see what would happen.
And a lot of amazing things happened. The core story of the internet is positive, overwhelmingly positive. But over time, we’ve also seen some of the downside risks and the harms that have been enabled by the very design and incentives of those technologies. That’s when traditionally we expect governments to engage. Something doesn’t have to be universally good for us to regulate it, or universally bad for us to regulate it. We can accept all the positives of something while also, as a society, trying to do things to mitigate the harms.
I think that’s where we are now, where the political wind has shifted, the societal acknowledgement of the harms is now solidified. There’s not a lot of debate anymore about some of these harms and now we’re in a question of what do you do about it? It’s a flurry of policymaking around the world about how do you address something as big and complicated that touches on so many aspects of our economy and our lives as the internet. [laughs] It’s a pretty wicked policy problem, but we’re in the weeds of it right now.
SEAN SPEER: Let’s take that up, Taylor. As you say, we’ve now had successive pieces of Canadian legislation that effectively revisit that initial approach, including C-11, which extends Canadian content rules to online streaming platforms, and C-18, which sets out a framework for Facebook and Google to compensate publishers for their content. We’re also still waiting on an online harms bill that deals with issues like child sexual exploitation, terrorism, hate speech, and so on. What has changed in your mind? What is the impetus behind these policies and how do they broadly compare with policy steps occurring in other jurisdictions?
TAYLOR OWEN: The first observation is that we have been late to this policy game. Canada has been a laggard in this policy conversation. Europe has moved much more quickly. Most Scandinavian countries have moved much more quickly. The UK has. States in the United States have moved faster across most of those topics you mentioned. That’s one thing, we’re late to the game. However, that brings with it, in my view, an opportunity which is to learn from the mistakes and successes of other jurisdictions. This is a very unique policy domain in that it has never been tried before.
While you have global platforms, whether they’re Chinese platforms or American platforms—and we can talk about some of the differences between them, which are dramatic—most of the policies we can enact to deal with what we perceive as some of the harms are domestic. Everybody sees similar problems, but everyone is going to have slightly different solutions based on their own democratic systems, jurisprudence, whatever, economies, any number of reasons which actually creates the perfect petri dish for policy experimentation.
We can look at all these different jurisdictions who’ve tried similar things and say, “okay, well, some things worked and some didn’t. Let’s build on that and try and make our policies the best-in-class at that moment that then other countries can learn from.” In an ideal world, that’s where we’d be. That’s thing one. I can come back to why I think we’re not in an ideal world in a minute.
The second is that when we look at policies for the internet or internet intermediaries, platforms, which is really what we’re talking about with a lot of these policies at the moment, I think we’ll be talking about something else in the future but right now when we’re talking about regulating the internet, we’re largely talking about what do you do about the big intermediaries that filter the internet for us and determine our digital experiences in large part.
They are such large actors. We talk about Google, Facebook, Amazon, these are some of the biggest global companies in history that touch on virtually every aspect of our lives. There is not a policy for these companies.
I find it very helpful to think of economic or competition policies as one bucket. Like, are they acting in anti-competitive ways? Are there anti-monopoly issues in play? Are there consumer protection issues involved? That’s one bucket.
A second, which is how do they deal with data. They are all fueled by data and capitalized on data as their primary economic model, which has all sorts of other issues involved with it. There’s a set of data privacy laws and regulations that are coming into play.
A third bucket is content. How do we deal with, as you said, the child exploitation issue, non-consensual sharing of intimate images, hate speech, defamation, fraud, a whole host of outputs of the system that we want to minimize as democratic societies.
Those are three very different policy regimes, approaches, and models. Different countries are doing different pieces of them. When I step back to come back to your question finally and look at the Canadian ecosystem of digital policy at the moment, I’d ask two things. One, to my first point, is it learning from what other countries have done, and is it better? Is it taking the right lessons?
Two, is it recognizing that you have to take this comprehensive approach to digital governance and do things in all three of those categories simultaneously? Which as you know better than most people is incredibly difficult for governments to do. A policy by one department is hard enough. Three new policy regimes in three different topical areas that require coordination across government simultaneously in an area they’ve never regulated before is incredibly complicated and difficult.
Those are the two questions I would ask. We can get into some of the pieces. I think on the first, we are taking some good lessons on some of these policies and some we’re not. On the comprehensive, I actually think part of why this is so challenging at the moment is because they actually are finally doing things across those three domains, and it’s pretty tough to do it all at once. We can get into that.
SEAN SPEER: We will indeed get into some of those questions. I think that’s a really useful framework for our conversation. Before we get into them, Taylor, let’s deal with some high-level issues that may help to situate our conversation, if that’s okay. How should we think about big tech companies like Facebook, and Google, and Twitter? Are they advertising companies, or publishers, or social networking sites? How does your answer to that question—or anyone’s for that matter— influence how we think about the right public policy response?
TAYLOR OWEN: It influences it tremendously. The answer, I’m afraid, is that they are many things all at once. Facebook might have started as a social media company, Amazon might have started as a book-selling company, Google might have started as a search engine, and if they had stayed those things, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation right now, for one, and two, they’d be fairly easy to regulate. We’d know how to do it.
The challenge is that because of just the unbelievable power of the platforms they built and the buy-in of society to the products that they built and the economic—the historic unprecedented margins they were able to build from the commoditization of the data they were collecting—they are now many, many things, each of them. Amazon is a healthcare delivery company. It is a marketplace for any kind of good and service. It is increasingly a financial services organization. Google is seven different companies touching so many aspects of our lives, our societies, our human autonomy, our transportation system.
One response to that from a regulatory standpoint is to throw up our hands and say, “This is ungovernable. How do we possibly govern something as complex and multifaceted as this?” Which, to me is, as I’m sure you would appreciate as someone who cares about public policy, is not the approach I would want to take here. The other is to say, “Okay, what does this platform do, and how does some of what it does intersect with our existing policies and responsibilities that we’ve given to our democratic states, or what should it be if that policy doesn’t exist?” That’s, I think, where we are.
If Facebook tried to relaunch a digital currency, which it thought about doing, in Canada, nobody would ever say that should not be regulated by our financial regulations. That just doesn’t make sense. If Amazon were to enter into our health-care system in a big way, no one’s saying that the Canada Health Act wouldn’t apply to them. We can come at this in multiple ways, in multiple directions, because they do so many things, and we have to.
SEAN SPEER: Sometimes it seems like a lot of the concerns that people have with big tech is fundamentally about the perception of their market concentration. That is to say, their issues with these companies—and even the possible role for policy intervention—may diminish if these companies weren’t so dominant in the marketplace. If that’s the case, then why isn’t the chief solution here about competition policy? What are the obstacles or drawbacks to thinking about these questions through an anti-trust lens?
TAYLOR OWEN: An antitrust lens is a subset of broader competition policy. I think the bigger question is how do we think of competition policy broadly, including mergers and acquisitions, the control of user data and information, all that, I think, and potentially antitrust? How does that relate to these? I feel similarly to this as I do to data policy and competition policy, which is they may address some of the challenges that we see or some of the potential risks and harms of the economic activity of these platforms, but they are not sufficient solutions.
You will see people who are very dogmatic on the free market side. It won’t surprise anybody to learn that the area where the U.S. is most out front of other countries is the competition policy domain. If you put so much stake as a society in the efficiency of markets, you care a lot about market fairness, or you should, and so we have various competition authorities in the U.S. really out front in many ways in potentially breaking off some of these companies into smaller pieces and limiting acquisitions and so on and so forth.
Now, I don’t think it’s sufficient because many of the problems we see with these platforms do not get solved through competition. We should try it because we might then see how far the market can actually go in providing some of these goods, these democratic goods or minimizing these risks. I am perhaps less confident than others, perhaps you in particular, of what that will end up with. Market competition in some ways can race to the bottom on this stuff too if not paired with certain safety nets in the form of data privacy laws, regulations around content which, I think, will apply to small and large players alike no matter how much competition there is.
SEAN SPEER: I should just say in parentheses that I’ve even heard the argument, which is somewhat compelling, that the risk of breaking these companies up without some of these other broader policy interventions is that it leads to the growing dominance of Chinese firms in some of these areas. In other words, you risk trading off the devil you know for the devil you don’t, if you think about it narrowly through a competition policy lens.
TAYLOR OWEN: That gets us into a much, I think, wider geopolitical conversation that’s often made with U.S. tech companies. The CEOs are very quick to make the argument that, wouldn’t you rather an unhindered us versus an unhindered Chinese platform ecosystem? To me, that’s a bit of a false trade-off. I don’t think that rationalizes not democratically governing our own companies. I think you can probably do both at the same time, but that’s a bigger strategic question.
SEAN SPEER: Indeed. I want to shift the conversation a bit to how you think about our current media landscape. Is there a market failure requiring policy intervention and if so, how do you think about that market failure? Is it a broad issue—sector-wide—or a more targeted one in certain markets, for instance? What, in other words, is the public policy problem or problems that needs to be solved in the area of the news media?
TAYLOR OWEN: You adding news media there clarified that a bit because I actually would think differently about the media writ large versus the industry of journalism, the current industrial production of journalism, or market production of journalism.
In the media industry writ large, if we take C-11 and C-18, C-11 looks at the broader media production space in Canada and seeks to update our regulatory, and largely protectionist in many ways, model that we’ve previously had in that sector to the internet. If one believes that that kind of protection is still warranted, then I think it probably makes sense to try and do that. I have my doubts that it’s needed. I’m actually not sure the current ecosystem needs that kind of protection in the same way it did in the ’70s, and ’80s, and ’90s.
I think it looks very different and I would probably go about that quite differently. On C-11, I think a lot of the rhetoric around it has been overwrought. I don’t think it’s a censorship regime. I think discoverability is not censorship. In fact, that trivializes the very real issue of internet censorship and regulations that overstep on content, which we will get to when we get to content because some have, and we need to protect against very cautiously. I’ve been working very hard to ensure that any guidance I give on this is very clear on that, that you can overstep on content policy and get into trouble with government overreach on content. That is not what C-11 is. Now, I think you can argue against it because you don’t like cultural protectionism.
SEAN SPEER: Sorry, if I could just interrupt you there. Obviously, I put a much broader question to you, but just to intervene for one moment on your observation about C-11, I think you’re precisely right.
I regret, in fact, the way that the policy debate around C-11 has unfolded because it seems to me the crux of the issue is as follows: We have a CanCon regime which at present is asymmetrically applied to traditional broadcasters and not extended to online streaming platforms. That asymmetry is inherently unfair. The question it seems to me, is how do you solve for it? Do you solve for it by extending the treatment to the online platforms or do you solve for it by reconceptualizing the policy with respect to traditional broadcasters?
It’s a technocratic question more than it is a fundamentally normative one, and yet the policy conversation has evolved because I think of opportunism on both sides of the debate to obscure what is, as I say, I think fundamentally a technocratic policy conversation. Sorry, I didn’t mean to intervene, but I just wanted to emphasize your point.
TAYLOR OWEN: No, I’m glad you did because I didn’t want to go too in the weeds of C-11, but I completely agree with you. I think that is actually a very interesting conversation. Do we think that we should be supporting Canadian cultural production broadly defined in the current media market and ecosystem globally, and how would we best do that? Now, I think what we also need to acknowledge is that there’s a history of CanCon that involves language issues, and regional diversity, and all sorts of things that are slightly more complicated, I think, than just a pure, “Is this a free market-supported industry or not?” I think there’s some nuance there. Yes, I think that is an easy debate and one that should be had. It has been torqued into something that it really isn’t in my view. That’s unfortunate but is what it is.
On the news media, I think there’s two questions one needs to ask to begin as first principles. Do we think the free market is currently supporting it and do we think it can? You can say we don’t think it’s currently supporting it but we do think that certain policies could help it provide that function, or do we think there’s been a more fundamental market failure that requires slightly more systemic state intervention, for lack of a better term, or governance?
I think we have to start with that conversation. If you tell me or someone tells me that the market does already provide that, then I don’t think we need to have the next policy conversation. If the market could solve this, we should let it do so. My view is we’re somewhere in between the second and third. The market is clearly failing in some respects to provide all of the journalistic goods we might want in a democratic society and the policies have been insufficient to fully reconcile that. I am less certain that we should be looking only at market solutions even if supported by public policy to solve this collective problem of creating the democratic good of journalism.
I think we need to look at non-market options for that too. Those two things can happen at the same time. I actually think there’s a rich policy debate because we probably need both. We need policies that better support and incentivize the market, and we need public media infrastructure conversations that aren’t market solutions at all because this good is so important to a democratic society.
SEAN SPEER: Even before Bill C-18, Facebook and Google started to sign agreements with certain publishers ostensibly to compensate them for their content. I’ve wondered if they did these deals in the hope that it would deter governments from pursuing a more universal framework. Yet, of course, as you wrote for The Hub in November, 2022, in some ways these agreements became a key rationale for Bill C-18 itself.
As you put it then: “These existing deals also demonstrated the platforms are willing and able to place value on the journalism that is shared on their platforms in a way that do not simply monetize links. In doing so, have themselves prove that this will ‘not break the internet.’ I understand why some publishers who already have deals would rather stick to the double they know, but the interest of public policy should be able to make these deals more equitably distributed and accountable to the Canadian public.”
Taylor, what was the rationale for these deals and what’s the rationale for not extending the same treatment to other publishers?
TAYLOR OWEN: I don’t think I know the rationale for those deals. You’re right, they pre-date the Australian News Media Bargaining Code, which many say that there is an argument out there that, “Look, this was just them trying to buy off publishers in other markets so that they wouldn’t support and lobby for similar regulations. But they predate them and the rhetoric around platforms supporting journalism in various ways precedes the News Media Bargaining Code by years, and years, and years.
Google and Facebook, in particular, have been talking about ways in which they can integrate journalism in their platforms and support journalism through various funds, and support initiatives, and subsidies, and free advertising, and any number of ways in which they’ve… in part because they see value in journalism. I think we can’t lose sight of that. We can come back to that. I do think journalism provides value to these platforms. When they say otherwise, I believe they’re being deeply disingenuous in the moment.
That’s one scenario. Another scenario is that they just believe that if you’re in the business of providing reliable information to your customers, or information about the world, journalism is a big part of that, and you should support it. I think there is a lot of good intention behind the support projects that these platforms were giving to journalism. I think they also recognize that for better or worse, they figured out a much more efficient business model for digital advertising. They saw what that did to the journalism industry.
They don’t need to place blame to see causality. It happened. A third of journalism was largely supported by advertising and that almost entirely went away. Another third was through classifieds, and that had already gone away when Craigslist and those things came on. Now you’re left with one-third of the pie for journalism support which is subscriptions and you get what you get. I think there is a recognition on the platform side that they owed something to this industry. It was important to their users. It’s valuable to democracy. They saw themselves broadly as being good democratic citizens, and they’re going to throw some support to this industry.
However, as I said in that piece, which I do believe very strongly is that the status quo where hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing from two private companies to some journalistic actors via contracts that are hidden behind NDAs is not a tenable situation. As a citizen, I would like to know something more about the money that’s going from one single or two corporate actors to support through huge grants. The New York Times just got $100 million dollars from Google. $100 million dollars.
I think we should know the terms of that deal as a citizen. As a reader of the New York Times, I’d like to know that. I’m not sure why the New York Times should get it and a whole host of other organizations shouldn’t, on broadly similar terms. I could see why the New York Times doesn’t want that, but I think as a citizen we should want it. That’s where policy can come into play in some degree.
SEAN SPEER: I asked about the inherent public policy problem earlier. The PBO, that is the Parliamentary Budget Office, has said that most of the compensation under Bill C-18 will be dedicated to large news media organizations like CTV or CBC. How does that advance the goal of addressing the market failure that we talked about earlier?
TAYLOR OWEN: You included CTV and CBC, which are interesting examples in the moment. I think there’s a legitimate debate about whether the public broadcaster should be incorporated in C-18. My view is they probably shouldn’t. The argument for them being included is that they function largely in the private market with their ad sales and all that. I don’t think they should. I think you solve that problem not by bringing them into the C-18 regime, but by pulling them out of the advertising regime. They’re publicly funded. I think they should do good things with their public funding and end of story. They shouldn’t be competing in the private sector in the way they do. Which would mean they wouldn’t be included in this kind of regime.
CTV, I think shows us some of the flaws in how that PBO report has been interpreted. CTV has just fired 1,300 people yesterday. They will now be getting a prorated, via 1,300 roughly FTEs, amount of the overall whatever ends up coming out of the C-18 allocations. The point I’m trying to make is the large broadcaster players, whether it’s the private sector, the newspapers or broadcasters, were receiving the largest amount in that PBO assessment because they do the most journalism. They have the most journalists. If I’m a small independent and I have two people, I will probably get a higher rate per individual, frankly, than the bigger players, but I’m going to get a tiny fraction of what the big players who have hundreds of journalists have.
I don’t see why that was a surprise to anybody. You could say, should broadcasters at all be included? Broadcasters are only included if they do online news. If we care about the good of online news, I think you have to make a case why they should be excluded, and that’s the point on which we should debate not whether they should be included. If our baseline is who is doing online journalism and publishing it online and competing in the online ad market, then that’s our starting point. If you want to exclude people, I think you have to make a case for why CTV’s website that does journalism should be excluded. I think there’s good arguments for why they should be, but that’s the term on which we have to have that conversation about CTV. I think the interpretation of that PBO report was frankly off-base in lot of respects.
SEAN SPEER: It does, however, Taylor, raise the broader potential fault line in this debate. A lot of the lobbying for C-18 has been driven by large legacy media players and the voices of smaller, more innovative upstarts at times have been diminished or excluded. I should say, I’m not defending Facebook or Google. We certainly have our issues with them at The Hub, but they have helped us to grow an audience that would be seriously constrained if they ultimately limited the sharing of news content as Facebook has threatened. Is there a way for policy to balance the interests of legacy and alternative media, or is there even a tradeoff there in your mind?
TAYLOR OWEN: I’m not sure the tradeoff is as stark as it’s been made, frankly. I think one of the main instigators of amplifying that tradeoff is within Google itself in a lot of their public engagement around this, which we can get into but I, in many ways, find problematic. I don’t see how smaller publishers are disproportionately affected by C-18. I think there are problems with the model of C-18, and I have concerns with it. I don’t think it’s a sustainable solution for journalism. It’s a big piece of a much broader puzzle, but it discriminating against small publishers is not a concern I have. In fact, if anything, the collective bargaining provision in it will enable small publishers to band together and have the power of the bigger Canadian publishers.
There’s a reason the Global and Mail has the biggest deal in Canada, because it’s the biggest organization with the most power and the most weight. This evens that bargaining potential and in fact, in a way that I bet will get better terms than the bigger players just because of the scale and the size. There is a question of where do you draw the line of how small, and how independent, and how journalistic, and that is a very reasonable point of debate that all journalism policy faces and I think requires some nuance in the conversation about C-18.
We have another policy, the journalism labour tax credit which gives percentage of labour tax credit to qualified journalism organizations. That goes through a process of evaluation by Canada Revenue to evaluate whether one is journalistic or not. It is a somewhat fraught process, that it at the end of the day excludes some organizations by criteria that we can debate.
The government could have applied that to C-18, that was the line they were going to use for inclusion in this regime but they didn’t, in part because of the the voices of small independents who didn’t hit that threshold, local newspapers in small communities that maybe only had one or two people and didn’t meet the threshold, and the advocacy of Google, who is saying this has to be much wider open. This has to include all these digital organizations.
Now the bar, as you know, is one FTE and one proprietor. Two people and the editorial standards line is lower than the qualified journalism organization standard for the CRA for the Canada labour tax credit.
I’m saying all this not to be pedantic, but to say, if we’re talking about funding journalism, you have to draw that line and you have to be very specific about what you mean by that line and who it includes versus who it excludes and who decides. I think C-18 broadened that out considerably. It’s now ironically—that broad nature is now being used by the platforms to say, “Look, this is going to make us fund all sorts of disinformation outlets and propaganda outlets.”
You can’t have it both ways. I think you have to draw that line and have that conversation about where we think is appropriate and where isn’t. I don’t think it’s crazy where it’s ended up on C-18. I think there’s very few organizations that self-identify as being journalistic that are going to see themselves as excluded from it. Some of that is in implementation, and we have to ensure that’s the case through implementation. No, excluding small publishers is, I think, a bit of a straw man on this.
SEAN SPEER: Your previous article for The Hub expressed the hope or the expectation maybe that the arrangements envisioned for Bill C-18 may not be permanent. It prompts the question, Taylor, what do you think the future of journalism might look like? How can the legislation serve as a bridge to a different business model or some other regime that better supports the market?
TAYLOR OWEN: I think that’s the conversation we need to be having somewhat urgently in this country as other countries are having as well. The reasons I don’t like this as a sustainable model is that we are heading to a situation where potentially 50 percent of the costs of journalism by many organizations are covered by either a labour tax credit from the government or a content deal by the platforms. In no universe is a journalism sector funded by two of the main actors in society it should be holding accountable a desirable long-term outcome.
Now, it may be necessary in order to keep the model alive for a certain degree of time, but I do think we have to be having much more foundational conversations about how we imagine journalism being produced and funded going forward. That will include, and I think will rapidly include, conversations about what are the current distribution model platforms in the world, and what will they be. How is something like generative AI going to displace even further the business model of news? It could. We can talk about that, but there’s many ways in which it could almost overnight do so should some of the platforms deploy it in the way they could already, let alone how it will be possible in five years.
Perhaps even at a more base level, what kind of collective information do we think we need as a society to be a responsible democracy and be responsible democratic citizens? Are we getting that right now? We run a big project, the Media Ecosystem Observatory, where we study the media ecosystem in Canada, and who consumes what, and how that affects how they behave, and what they believe, and who they support politically, and so on and so forth.
I tell you every trend line is bad. We are heading to a place where we do not agree increasingly on the same things. We are increasingly not just polarized, but we increasingly dislike people who believe other things. There are some really worrying trends. That is not unrelated from the question of reliable information in a democratic society, and who provides it, and how economically we build a system that can sustain it. I don’t have an easy solution. I think it’s one of the core challenges we face as a democratic society. We’re not alone. Other countries are going through this too. I worry greatly about what happens if we don’t figure it out.
SEAN SPEER: You mentioned the potential magnitude of direct and indirect subsidies for the journalism industry. What would you say to the argument that one of the risks is that it impedes the process of creative destruction and effectively locks in what are, for all intents and purposes, failed business models?
TAYLOR OWEN: I think it’s a legitimate concern that needs to be guarded against carefully. If it was exclusionary to new business models and new forms of innovative companies, then I would be more concerned about that. I don’t think C-18 is. Actually, I don’t think the labour tax credit is either. If I’m starting a new business, in journalism, I can apply for that. If those were both excluding digitally native startups, I would be more concerned about them. I don’t think either do. We can have that conversation, but I’m just not sure that’s the case.
The second relevant variable here is, are we okay with a system of creative destruction in an industry such as journalism? I think that’s a fair question to ask. Do we want to leave the production of reliable information in the democratic society to the whims of the market at this moment? I think people can agree to disagree on that one. I don’t think we should. I think journalism is different than some other media production sectors.
I don’t think, as much as I love the Canadian film industry, if creative destruction leads to a decline in the Canadian film, I assume, I think that’s an issue as an industry in a sector being harmed. I don’t think that’s a threat to our democratic society. I think you can make a case that decline of journalism and the production of reliable information broadly defined, produced by many in a diverse way, is a core function of a democratic society. I’d like to make that case anyway.
If you do believe that, then the idea of just pure creative destruction with no market intervention is a problem. The last thing on this is that, if one argues for a pure free market approach to this, then one has to probably get rid of all regulatory constraints of the media sector and the journalism sector writ large, including protectionist measures on foreign newspaper ownership, the public broadcaster, a whole host of different things. If one wants to make that argument, you have to be really, I think, clear about what you mean by it. Let’s take out all guardrails and let it rip. If you think that, I’d like to have that conversation. That’s not should we or not do the labour tax subsidy. That’s one piece of a much bigger conversation, I think.
SEAN SPEER: I agree. I would just say, in parentheses, I suspect it’s something of a spectrum in the end. The risk of saying nocreative destruction, of course, is that it creates a kind of arbitrage opportunity for investors—
TAYLOR OWEN: Absolutely.
SEAN SPEER: —who really aren’t committed to the goal of journalism and high-quality information, but they see it a means to get a return on investment because the government is essentially saying we’re prepared to backstop. Right?
TAYLOR OWEN: Absolutely. I think that’s a legitimate concern. You have to then look at what the ownership structures of some of these big organizations are and what other ways are they subsidized and protected through our regulatory regimes. You have to open those questions up, I think. Sometimes they’re uncomfortable. There’s no question. To the spirit of your question, I think a lot more could and should be done to support innovation in the journalism sector. Full stop. I think these policies are part of it, but I think we could be doing a lot more to support the digitally native organizations that are clearly going to be the future of this industry. I think there’s a lot of ideas out there on what to do, and it could be additive. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive from what we’re already doing. I would hope we do a lot more of them.
SEAN SPEER: Let’s wrap up by looking ahead. Where do things go from here? Can you walk us through how you envision Bill C-18, assuming it’s passed, ultimately plays out?
TAYLOR OWEN: Oh, God. I don’t know. I think it likely will pass. This is relevant to what happens, I think it’ll likely pass in six to eight countries around the world in the next year to 18 months. This is not a radical Canadian idea. This is something being actively tabled and proposed by jurisdictions around the world, including California, which is likely to pass a similar version in the next few months. The U.K., which has just tabled a similar piece of legislation, Brazil, which is about to pass something similar, South Africa is considering it.
That is relevant to where this goes, because part of where it goes will depend on how the platforms react. Facebook is saying they will block access to news. Now I think they, in reality, have been decreasing the role that news information plays in their ecosystem for some time. This is not an “in reaction to this bill” issue. This is part of a longer trend.
We need to ask ourselves, “Are they technically capable and willing to block news in Canada?” I think the answer to both is probably yes. There’s not that many news organizations. They could create an index of them all and block them. Maybe it’s worth the risk to do it in Canada to show other countries the fate they might have.
Now, as a side note, I don’t think we should be making public policy over-emphasizing those kinds of threats. I think we should take them seriously, but I don’t think that should be the core driver of our democratic policy-making process. We don’t do that in any other sector. I don’t think we should here either.
The bigger question I would ask, to come back to your broader question of where this goes. I can’t imagine a world in which Facebook blocks news in eight to 10 countries, including California, as a market the size of Canada in which this company is based. What does that look like? Realistically. Do you create a list of tens of thousands of news organizations and they’re just blanket blocked from being seen on what is ostensibly an open platform? Maybe that’s worth it to them. I have my doubts that that’s how this is going to play out.
I think we can see the efforts to block in Canada and California, or threatening to block, as part of a larger warning sign to other democratic governments who are actively trying to pass similar legislation. That’s one piece.
Second is, is there a world in which Google and Facebook largely abide by these pieces of legislation? I think that world is probably the more likely one. I think it will be a little messy, it’s going to look different in every country, but it probably looks like what happened in Australia. Democratic country passes a democratic law that says you broadly have to enter into agreements with publishers and they broadly do so. Does that solve the problem with journalism? Absolutely not. Does it provide some funding like it did, $200 million in Australia goes to the journalism sector? Does that make a difference right now when this industry is under a huge amount of stress? Absolutely.
That’s probably the reality I see, is reluctant acquiescence broadly to the terms of these pieces of regulation that are going to look a little bit different in each country, but are probably going to be applied to cumulative countries with a billion people in it. This is not an idiosyncratic Canadian debate. This is a global conversation about how we protect funding and resources to our journalism sector.
SEAN SPEER: Well, there’s a ton of insight in that answer as there’s been a ton of insight throughout this conversation. I want to thank you for helping us work through these issues and giving us a window into that future. Taylor Owen, the Beaverbrook Chair in Media, Ethics, and Communications at McGill University. Thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
TAYLOR OWEN: My pleasure. I really enjoyed that. Thanks.