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Peter Menzies: Blocking news on Facebook is a rational response to irrational legislation

Commentary

Policies founded on fantasies collapse quickly.

That’s the most obvious takeaway from the news that U.S.-based Meta is beginning to block linkage to new organizations’ content on Facebook and Instagram in Canada.

The reason is a poorly conceived and then amateurishly-crafted piece of legislation known as the Online News Act. Based on a law passed, but never used, in Australia, C-18 is designed to force Big Tech companies such as Google and Meta-owned Facebook to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars annually to “compensate” news organizations through deals made under the oversight of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

It is, to all intents and purposes, a government-run extortion scheme based on the sort of economic and policy rationale used by street thugs and tin-pot kleptocrats to justify their muggings.

On Thursday, Meta announced that it will begin testing its long forecast plan to disallow linkage to news if C-18 passes as is. It says between one and 5 percent of Facebook users will be affected and the news organizations targeted will be selected at random.

Prominent news organizations campaigned relentlessly for Bill C-18, accusing the social media and search engine giants of “stealing” their content and profiting from it. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez damned them for refusing to fairly pay journalists for their news and of late has been, in a series of critiques ripe with rhetorical flourish, denouncing Meta for what he calls irresponsible intimidation tactics that are out of touch with Canadians.

The prime minister did the same earlier this year when Google also experimented with de-indexing news websites so that they would not appear in search results.

Given that his government has been in court defending its right to share news organizations’ subscription passwords with its employees rather than buy a bulk subscription, it was a remarkable thing to say but that’s a story for another day.

The truth of the matter is this:

  • Big Tech companies haven’t “stolen” anything. Yes, they own 80 percent of the digital advertising market but they won it the old-fashioned way: they earned it. They built better mousetraps while newspapers floundered under a tsunami of new technology. The Internet may very well have killed print newspapers, but it did so in the same way the automobile killed the horse-drawn carriage industry, Amazon dominated The Bay, Netflix put Blockbuster to the sword and email made Canada Post irrelevant.
  • Facebook estimates the annual value it offers to news organizations by allowing them to post their material for free is $230 million. The Department of Heritage, the author of Bill C-18, estimates the amount the bill can generate for the entire news industry from the tech companies each year is $215 million. It is the news organizations that are already getting the better of the deal.
  • While the government and Bill C-18 backers insist Meta is bluffing because, after a similar stance blocking news posts in Australia, it “backed down,” this isn’t true. It was the Australian government that, faced with Facebook’s boycott, amended its legislation, after which the parties signed deals that didn’t necessitate government involvement. (Meta has already indicated it is unhappy with those deals and is unlikely to renew).
  • Bill C-18 is so invasive even the publishers that relentlessly lobbied for it through organizations such as News Media Canada were this week asking the Senate committee reviewing the bill to amend it by dialing back the extent to which it allows the CRTC to snoop into their business affairs and, in particular, their newsrooms.
  • Almost all major news organizations already have commercial deals involving licensing and repurposing of content and, one assumes, data with major tech companies. The one area in which their appeals to government have merit is an imbalance in the two parties’ negotiation positions due to the Tech Giants’ dominant market positions.

There are many, many matters for which Meta, Google and others can and should be fairly criticized and regulated. But when it comes to the Online News Act, their response is the only rational act left to them when faced with irrational legislation.

Meta warned Rodriguez more than a year ago that while they were willing to make deals that supported journalism, the construct of Bill C-18 left them exposed to unlimited financial liability and set a precedent that, if replicated globally, would have unsustainable consequences. The price was way too high to pay for a content category — news — that made up 3% of their traffic.

Instead of listening, this government did what it always does: it sought to gain political advantage by demonizing the web giants and anyone else who dared question the wisdom of their legislative buffoonery.

And the consequences will be dire unless adult supervision is restored to the management of this file.

Globe and Mail publisher Philip Crawley told the Senate this week it would cost his company, which has adapted better than most, millions. Other legacy media spokesmen said the same.

Jen Gerson of The Line told senators that newer, smaller and independent media (which includes The Hub) are “disproportionately dependent on social media to build a brand and develop an audience.”

Jeff Elgie of Village Media, which has built a successful network of web-based local news platforms and national partnerships said Google and Facebook provide over half of his company’s web traffic, and “if that traffic was lost, the business would be over.”

The Online News Act is based on, at best, an economic fantasy. At worst, its foundational argument is a big, fat lie. The consequences (none of them good) are about to be felt by every news organization in the country.

Malcolm Jolley: In Northern Italy, lighter and lesser-known red wines are trending up

Commentary

It’s easy to forget that traveling is a privilege when you’re in the middle of it. It’s particularly easy when the lady at the airline customer service desk at the Frankfurt airport tells you that you are about to experience the privilege of an unscheduled overnight layover in Eddersheim rather than a night of negroni hopping in Turin, where the hotel room you’ve already paid for is waiting for you.

But it is a privilege, and one of its invaluable lessons is to learn to take what it gives you, make the best of it, and try to have fun since you’re paying for it anyway. The schnitzel and beer in Eddersheim are fine.

I have been traveling this week in the company of my young adult son, who is in between terms at university and his summer job. His mother’s side of our family is trans-Atlantic, and after seeing relations in the U.K., we have abandoned the rest of our nuclear family and come to Piedmont in Northern Italy to acquaint and reacquaint ourselves with the wine and food culture here. It’s worked out well, despite or maybe even because of some re-adjustments. 

We had three winery visits planned in the hilly Barolo and Barbaresco regions around the old cathedral town of Alba, southeast of Turin. In the end, only one managed to happen. This was partly due to our German delay, but also just life getting in the way of the best-laid plans.

The one we made it to was exceptionally good in any event, and it will require its own column (coming soon). The other two will happen eventually (I hope), but not on this trip.

I like visiting wineries very much. Seeing how and where good wine is made only enhances its appreciation. So does getting to meet and observe the people who make it in their natural habitat. Sometimes that’s a multi-million dollar cathedral built to Dionysus and sometimes it’s not much more than a converted barn or garden shed. 

One of the things wine writers look for when they visit wineries is the state of cleanliness of the operation, which can affect the quality of the wine. Another is the type, shape, and size of the vessels wine is fermented and stored in. There are quite a few of these physical manifestations of wine-making that can be deduced quickly from a visit.

I like to make a more esoteric observation in the form of the question: would I like to work here? Happy people make happy wine. Or, so I would like to believe.

And visiting a winery is more times than not fun. It’s not always true that the best winemakers are natural hosts, but it usually is. I joke that I am a professional houseguest, and I will readily admit that receiving generous hospitality is a prerequisite of this job I missed dearly during the lockdowns of the pandemic. Of course, wineries are also where they keep the wine, so if you’re interested in tasting as much as you can, they are the place to be.

It’s also at the winery that you get the inside stories, the bits of information that don’t make it on the website or the technical sheets that list lab results. This wine is made from vines planted by a grandfather after the war. Or, as a young woman the winemaker was called the crazy lady of the village because she refused to spray pesticides on her family’s rows.

But this week, we are not really on a wine trip so much as just traveling in wine country, and that offers a unique kind of education in and of itself. North Americans will probably never consume wine quite like the French, Italians, Argentines, or whoever. So what? We don’t drive like the Germans or Japanese either.

Seeing, and tasting, wine in situ helps to understand why it’s made beyond just the mechanics of how. Over the last decade or so, I have traveled more in Italy than anywhere abroad, and it’s fascinating to see subtle differences in wine culture.

It’s a small thing, but I have noticed that the standard wine order at dinner is one bottle, nearly always red. It’s one bottle whether the table is for two, three, or four. I don’t know if it’s magic or a really well-coordinated effort between servers and the kitchen, but the food arrives and is consumed in near-perfect synchronicity with the time it takes to finish the bottle. When the last plate is cleared, it’s time to order coffee (or grappa, or both).

A wine that carries a whole meal needs to be flexible. A wine that carries the menu choices of more than one person needs to be even more flexible. So, the wines I see most often on the tables of other patrons at dinner in Piedmont are less likely to be the big famous wines of the region like Barolo or Barbera, and more likely to be the lesser-known lighter reds like Dolcetto, Freisa, or Pelaverga. (All three of which are hard—though not impossible—to find in Canada for reasons elaborated in my last column.)

Could the flexibility of the wines for restaurant dinners be the reason that producers are rediscovering them? Or are the Italian diners just happy that there are more of them on wine lists and ordering them more? If it’s the latter, then is this an early signal for a wine trend to come?

I have no idea. Just the same when I think of lighter reds, I’ll think of them on the restaurant tables of Northern Italy and see if they pass the one-bottle-for-all-of-dinner test.