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Michael Geist: Why the Online News Act has been a total policy disaster

Commentary

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked this week about concerns with the implementation of Bill C-18, to which he responded that other countries are quietly backing Canada in its battle against tech companies.

I posted a reality check tweet noting that Meta is not returning to news in Canada, the law’s regulation stipulating a four percent fee on revenues is not found anywhere else, and that Bill C-18 has emerged as a model for what not to do.

With the House of Commons back in session, it is worth providing a more fulsome reality check on where things stand with the Online News Act. While the government is still talking tough, the law has been an utter disaster, leading to millions in lost revenues with cancelled deals, reduced traffic for Canadian media sites, declining investment in media in Canada, and few options to salvage this mess.

For those that took the summer off, Bill C-18 received royal assent in late June. Over the past three months:

1. Meta has blocked all news links in Canada and cancelled existing deals with Canadian news outlets. The blocked links cover both Canadian and foreign news in light of the broad scope of the law. While the Australian experience lasted a few days, the blocking in Canada has now gone on for weeks and there is little reason to believe that the company will reverse its position to comply with the law by simply not linking to news. 

2. The government responded to the blocked news links by stopping its advertising on Facebook and Instagram and encouraging others to do the same. The boycott has had little effect as the Liberal party is still advertising on the platforms with a new round of ads this week, the prime minister is still posting on the platforms, and reports indicate that Facebook has not experienced a reduction in user activity. In fact, reports suggest that the experience on Facebook without news has improved. Further, a Competition Act complaint has not sparked any action.

3. Google responded to Bill C-18 by advising it too would remove news links from its services before the law takes effect in December. That position enabled it to wait for the government to release draft regulations that provide further detail on the application of the law and the standards for obtaining an exemption from the mandatory bargaining process that can lead to final offer arbitration overseen by the CRTC.

4. The draft regulations, which caved in some key issues, were released in early September by new Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge. The government envisions Google and Meta paying at least 4 percent of search or social media revenues in Canada for a minimum of $234 million. Given the approach in the regulations, that percentage is likely higher. The regulations only require that “some” of the money be spent on journalism and its approach to fair compensation means that the CBC is likely the biggest beneficiary. 

5. The government’s estimates from the law are now more than 50 percent higher than they were less than one year ago. No other country in the world has established what amounts to a four percent link tax. In fact, the four percent figure was never discussed at committee in Canada.

6. The effect of the news link blocking in Canada has led to smaller and innovative services laying off staff or stopping all new hiring. Some report losing as much as 50 percent of their website traffic.

7. The CRTC has established a timeline for it to address Bill C-18 regulations that stretch into 2025. In fact, there can be no mandatory bargaining under the law until certain CRTC regulations are concluded, which it says will not happen until late 2024 or early 2025.

8. News Media Canada, the lead lobbyist for Bill C-18, has now told the government that it wants the “temporary” support measures such as the Labour Journalism Tax Credit extended and expanded. The group is seeking government tax credits equal to 35 percent of labour costs. When combined with the roughly 35 percent envisioned by Bill C-18 (in the unlikely event that both tech companies reach agreements), the groups wants 70 percent of news costs paid for government or through government regulation.

9. The Canadian approach has not taken off elsewhere. A California bill was delayed until at least 2024, while a U.S. federal bill may not have sufficient support in the House of Representatives. New Zealand introduced a bill, but with an imminent election, it will not pass. Meanwhile, Australia is now preparing for the expiry of the original 2021 deals between Facebook and media outlets with many expecting that Facebook will not renew the agreements as it shifts away from news worldwide.

10. Looking ahead, there is little hope that Meta will return to news in Canada. If Google follows suit, no Internet company will be subject to Bill C-18. Even if it does reach an agreement, it will not be enough to compensate for the lost revenue and traffic from Meta. In the meantime, investment in the sector has ground to a halt, Canadians have lost access to news on social media, and small and independent media are particularly hard hit. Avoiding the Canadian outcome is now a top policy priority in other countries looking at media legislation.

This column originally appeared on michaelgeist.ca.

Howard Anglin: The past is not so very long ago

Commentary

It takes a lot to stop me in my tracks when I’m reading, but it happened last week in the middle of Terry Glavin’s Substack newsletter (go, subscribe). The occasion was an article about the Peel District School Board’s culling of classic literature following a review ordered by Ontario’s progressive government in the wake of “concerns about equity” back in 2019. Through a series of predictable follies, including a “diversity audit” of school libraries and the “weeding” of “dated” books, this order seems to have resulted in the removal of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl from at least one school library.

The particular line that jolted me out of my passive reading mode was this: “If she were alive today Anne Frank would be 93.” Only 93? I mean, I know that the Second World War ended in 1945 and I can do the math but…only ninety-three? I probably see someone almost that old every day. There is a not unreasonable chance that, had she survived Bergen-Belsen, Anne Frank would still be alive today. The girl who filled her diary with romantic crushes, petty jealousies, and existential fears could easily be a sweet old lady in an Amsterdam nursing home right now.

It is always good to be reminded of how close the past is. Faulkner’s line that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is usually read as a statement specific to the American South, but it’s both more personal and more universal than that. The novel in which the line appears, Requiem for a Nun, is a tough read about race, rape, and suffering, and in context the line refers ambiguously to both a person and a place, one person’s life and the life of a people, memory, and history. It says that we can’t escape the past any more than we can escape our own past. Even when we forget it, it re-emerges like an atavistic gene.

Anne Frank’s age reminds us that the Holocaust happened within a single lifetime, within living memory, as the saying goes. That is, it exists within the memory of the living, though just barely. Very soon it will live only through new lives’ experiences of old memories, which is why initiatives like the World Memory Project are so important. And it’s not just the Holocaust. The older I get, the more recent so much of what I used to think of as distant history seems, especially when measured in human lifetimes. Translated this way, the foreshortening effect can be unnerving.

Think of an 85-year-old man, long-lived but not especially so. Someone you can still talk to. No doubt you know a few. That man you know lived through all of the Second World War, and he’s still here in the flesh. Go back just one more of his lifetime and you are already well before 1867, the year of Canada’s Confederation. Go back three such lifetimes, and you are before the French and American Revolutions. Four lifetimes ago, you are before the Glorious Revolution. In only five lifetimes, you are back in the age of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Six, and you are before the Reformation. 

Stephen Fry has an anecdote about meeting the venerable British journalist Alistair Cooke that nicely captures this idea:

When the evening was over Alistair Cooke shook my hand goodbye and held it firmly, saying, ‘This hand you are shaking once shook the hand of Bertrand Russell.’

‘Wow!’ I said, duly impressed.

‘No, No,’ said Cooke, ‘It goes further than that. Bertrand Russell knew Robert Browning. Bertrand Russell’s aunt danced with Napoleon. That’s how close we all are to history. Just a few handshakes away. Never forget that.

The effect works with shorter timespans too. For someone my age, the attacks of 9/11 are so recent they feel, as we say, like yesterday. If I close my eyes, I can put myself right back there on the day (and not just because I was there). The twenty-two years dissolve in an instant. But at the time of 9/11, we were just three such instants from 1935: the year Hitler ordered the rebuilding of the Luftwaffe; the dust bowl year of the Great Depression; the year Alfred Dreyfus died. Just six such instants ago, six blinks of the eye, and we were fighting the Boer War.

Wars, in particular, echo down the generations. They have what economists call a long tail. As of 2019, the United States was still paying a pension to a dependent of a Civil War veteran—and pensions to more than 4,000 from the Spanish-American (1898) and Philippine-American (1899-1902) wars. When I was a boy, our neighbour, the spinster Miss Jones, was a Victorian who could remember the beginning of World War I. It’s likely that, as a boy, her father had a neighbour who similarly remembered the Battle of Waterloo. 

The advent of audio and film recording changed historical memory forever by making the past something we can experience not just vicariously but viscerally. YouTube is full of such time capsules: Civil War veterans performing the Rebel Yell; Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade; Brahms playing one of his Hungarian Dances. The sound quality is poor and distorted by crude technology, but it’s unmistakably the sound of living people. And if you close your eyes and widen your imagination, you can be there with them.

We have photographs of Anne Frank, of course, but unfortunately no recordings. Yet I still can’t get past the idea that she could still be alive today, or banish thoughts of all the unborn children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were snuffed out with her, but who otherwise would be walking our streets and bringing flowers to brighten her room at the nursing home. Nor should we banish such thoughts; it is good to remember. Or as Alistair Cooke reminded Stephen Fry, “Never forget.”