Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Peter Menzies: It’s hard to see how the government’s online news mess can be cleaned up

Commentary

One Elvis has left the building.

Another is still taking requests but no one knows for how long.

The first is Meta. As we are all aware by now, it decided, following the June passage of the Online News Act (Bill C-18), to no longer allow its Facebook, Instagram, and Threads users to post links to news.

That exit from news carriage has already resulted in economic harm to online news innovators who lost a key (and free) platform they once used to build audiences. Entrepreneurial companies such as Village Media have called a halt to growth while long-established publishers are losing millions of dollars in sorely needed revenue due to the loss of traffic Meta once drove to their websites. The pain will only grow for all sectors of the news industry as Meta winds down its funding arrangements for journalism rather than being forced to pay for the privilege of delivering it.

Google is the other offshore “Web Giant” targeted by Bill C-18, which compels the global behemoths to subsidize approved Canadian news organizations through faux “commercial” agreements reached at the point of a legislative gun and approved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

It has indicated it is also prepared to disengage from its current journalism supports and de-index Canadian news organizations from its search engine rather than play along with what many view as a shakedown.

Google, though, hasn’t entirely given up on Canada, or if it has it isn’t saying. While skeptical, it has officially remained open to the idea that Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge can allay its primary concerns through the regulations that always follow the passage of legislation.

Chief among its worries is that Bill C-18 exposes Google to unlimited financial liability (in other words they had no idea how much they would have to pay to satisfy the demands of Postmedia, Bell, the Toronto Star, Rogers, and many, many others). It also mistrusts the idea that regulations could be “future-proofed.” Like Meta, Google is glaringly aware that whatever it agrees to in Canada will be replicated globally as media outlets in other countries look to belly up to the Big Tech bar. As one source told me, “multiply it by at least 50” when it comes to the potential worldwide cost of Bill C-18.

The regulations were published in draft form on Sept. 1. St-Onge declared them “reasonable,” having forecast optimism they would quickly lead to Google and Meta reaching the desired arrangements with news organizations and all would be well by Christmas.

Forget it, said Meta.

“As we have communicated to the government, the regulatory process is not equipped to address the fundamentally flawed premise of the Online News Act,” it said in a statement. “As the legislation is based on the incorrect assertion that Meta benefits unfairly from the news content shared on our platforms, today’s proposed regulations will not impact our business decision to end news availability in Canada.”

Google indicated only that it would engage in the process, which gave interested parties 30 days to comment on the draft regulations before they are finalized and come into force no later than Dec. 19.

But based on what St-Onge has laid out so far, happiness remains a long shot.

As observers such as Michael Geist, who follows this file like a hound in a fox hunt, have pointed out, St-Onge’s proposed regulations still constitute a tax on links that, instead of putting a cap on Google’s liability, merely put a floor in place.

The regulations insist that agreements must be based on the number of journalists employed by each news organization (which means CBC would be the largest beneficiary). They then confuse matters by stating that the lowest cost deal can be no less than 20 percent of that paid to the largest recipient. Then there’s the CRTC, which is so overwhelmed by its new duties under the Online Streaming Act that it has abandoned dealing with most broadcasting issues for at least two years. It. has announced it won’t have a list of approved recipients ready until late 2024 which, in CRTC years (the regulator is notoriously slothful) means 2026.

There’s more. The amount of money that St-Onge and the Act’s proponents have deemed “reasonable” is $62 million from Meta (irrelevant as it stands) and $172 million from Google. People in the know are generally of the belief that Google is good for no more than $100 million with some question around whether that includes amounts they are already paying through existing deals. But $172 million (remember x 50+) is not going to fly. Throw in that Google must allocate a “significant” amount to Indigenous and official language organizations and, well, it’s difficult to see this mess working out anytime soon.

Google’s vice president of news, Richard Gingras, recently gave a speech in Taipei in which he indicated the company wants to support journalism because Google does better in democracies than in the alternatives.

Take that however you want.

But for those of you wondering if St-Onge has managed to salvage at least something from the Bill C-18 debacle by satisfying Google, don’t hold your breath. The best guess is that it will file its response to the draft regulations, describe them as deficient but still allow the government time to bend to its wishes in a final, amended, version.

The government, meanwhile, has to find a way to declare victory while in full retreat.

If it does, news organizations might be provided some solace. They might even make up a little of the money they are losing through Meta’s departure.

If it doesn’t, if Google leaves the building, last week’s Metroland bankruptcy will be small beer compared to what comes next.

Either way, the news industry will be far weaker than it was before it talked Ottawa into helping it out.

Rahim Mohamed: Longevity has not translated into global respect for Justin Trudeau

Commentary

In an iconic line from the 1974 neo-noir classic Chinatown, corrupt Los Angeles water commissioner Noah Cross quips to hardboiled private investigator Jake Gittes, “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and w—-s all get ‘respectable’ if they last long enough.”

After what is his eighth appearance as prime minister of Canada at the UN General Assembly, Justin Trudeau may well be asking what makes him the exception to this rule. 

Trudeau’s visit to the United Nations in New York came just a week removed from a disastrous showing at the G20 summit in Delhi. Trudeau’s rough weekend in the Indian capital saw him get a cold shoulder from his fellow world leaders; ending, humiliatingly, with a sharply worded (and very public) rebuke from the host nation’s leader. The chilly relations are especially explicable now, given we’ve learned that Trudeau confronted Prime Minister Narendra Modi with serious allegations of an extra-judicial, extra-territorial killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil by Indian security services. Canada and India have each now expelled top diplomats.

And to add insult to injury, the prime minister and his entourage were forced to stick around India for an extra day last week when mechanical issues left the Canadian delegation’s plane stuck on the tarmac at a Delhi airport.  

The India fiasco comes on the heels of weeks of bad international press for Trudeau, much of which has excoriated him for allowing Canada to become a liability to the NATO defence alliance under his watch. (According to a recent U.S. intelligence leak, Trudeau has privately told NATO officials that Canada will “never” meet the alliance’s defence spending target of two percent of national GDP.)

Trudeau has also ruffled feathers, of late, with his penchant for moralizing on the world stage; for instance, calling out Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni for her government’s record on LGBT issues at this May’s G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Trudeau once again reached into his intersectional bag of tricks last weekend when asked what the Canadian delegation contributed to G20 summit-concluding communiqué; replying (with a straight face), “gender language (and) Indigenous reflection.” One could almost feel the groan this response elicited halfway across the world in Canada. 

Now the longest-tenured G7 head, and one of the world’s most seasoned leaders, Trudeau should, in theory, be a force to be reckoned with in the international arena—a domain that, historically, has been dominated by elder statesmen in the vein of Churchill, de Gaulle, Mandela, and King. However, far from settling into the role of éminence grise, Trudeau remains something akin to the Rodney Dangerfield of global politics: no matter what he does, he just can’t seem to “get no respect”. Case in point: Canada’s closest allies have so far fallen short of offering full-throated support on the India imbroglio.

So why hasn’t longevity translated into influence for the long-tenured Trudeau? 

One glaring issue with the Canadian premier’s foreign policy, throughout his eight years at the helm, has been a consistent gulf between words and actions. While rarely missing a chance to stand on a soapbox at this global summit or the other, Trudeau has noticeably lacked in follow-through. Setting aside Canada’s paltry defense spending, the Trudeau government has similarly underwhelmed in the humanitarian sphere, tacking a $1.3-billion (or 16 percent) cut to foreign aid to its latest federal budget.

“There is certainly a gap between rhetoric and reality,” said non-profit executive Kate Higgins in response to the budget cuts. 

The Trudeau government has also been accused of falling short of its commitments to help arm a besieged Ukraine, despite Canada being home to the world’s second-largest Ukrainian diaspora behind Russia. Even more shameful was our abandonment of interpreters and other vulnerable helpers after our chaotic exit from Afghanistan two years ago. (The war-torn Afghanistan was the focal point of Canadian foreign policy for two decades, with Canada leaving its cultural imprint in the form of Tim Hortons and Hockey Night in Kandahar.) 

Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet are understandably focused on domestic matters right now as they look to reverse a cost-of-living crisis that has wreaked havoc on their poll numbers. They cannot, however, afford to neglect Canada’s increasing irrelevance in international affairs—especially at a time of global flux driven by an uptick in Russian and Chinese aggression. 

Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper was similarly focused on domestic matters but nevertheless carved out a successful niche in foreign policy by knowing where to pick his battles. Harper stayed laser-focused on economic relations during his time at the helm, inking a record number of trade deals with both developed and emerging economies. He also prudently banked his global political capital, channelling it into a successful (if unheralded) push to improve maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH) outcomes in the Global South.

By contrast, Justin Trudeau’s foreign policy evinces no such focus and boasts no comparable marquee accomplishment. With his days in the big chair likely numbered, it may already be too late for him to salvage his global legacy. 

Justin Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister shows that experience doesn’t always equate to gravitas. He may continue to spit out all the right diplomatic buzzwords at global summits, but his fellow world leaders have long since tuned him out. Why, after all, should they care about what he has to say, given his long track record of overpromising and underdelivering in the international sphere? 

If Trudeau won’t learn from the example of his predecessor on global affairs, perhaps he’ll heed the foreign policy advice of one Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: “Know your role and shut your mouth.”