Bill C-18, The Online News Act, has the Canadian government locked in a battle with tech giants Google and Meta.
The bill was supposed to “save” struggling Canadian news journalism by making big tech platforms pay media outlets for news content they share or otherwise repurpose on their platforms.
Rather than pay, Google will be removing Canadian news links from Google News and Google Discover by the end of the year, when the legislation comes into effect.
Similarly, Meta announced that it will remove news from Facebook and Instagram.
Without exposure on these platforms, Canadian news sites are on track to lose valuable traffic and resulting ad revenue. More crucially, news is a public service people rely on to keep up-to-date with everything from politics to local events to forest fires in their area, and this service will be kneecapped.
“This is going to result in tens of millions of losses for Canada’s media and Canadians losing access to services,” said Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in Internet Law. “Everybody loses.”
Capitalists are proving more than ever that they cannot maintain even a semblance of democratic civil society.
Why the Online News Act?
It’s no secret that news media has been struggling to stay afloat in the internet age. In the days when news was delivered on paper rather than pixels, up to 40 per cent of a newspaper’s revenue came from classified ads. When sales and announcements migrated to Kijiji and Facebook, that revenue stream dried up. And with readers getting their news online, outlets struggled to monetize a commodity that was now available for free. Over the past two decades almost 500 Canadian newspapers have closed down and thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Meanwhile, giant platforms like Google and Facebook rake in advertising dollars without producing any content.
Supporters of Bill C-18 claim that online platforms like Google and Facebook make money off of content news outlets produce, and it’s only fair for them to pass some of that revenue back. According to them, this funding would help ensure robust, democratic news media.
As Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said, “hundreds of newsrooms have closed because billions in advertising revenue they used to rely on has shifted to Google and Facebook.” He added that Bill C-18, “levels the playing field by putting the power of big tech in check.”
The Parliamentary Budget Officer reported that the bill would boost the Canadian news industry by $329-million annually—if everything proceeds according to plan. Which, of course, it isn’t.
Tech monopolies retaliate
On June 22, the bill received royal assent. Its supporters didn’t have long to celebrate before Meta and Google sprang into action. They would comply with the law—by removing and blocking Canadian news links on their platforms. Both companies are also nixing existing deals with Canadian news organizations related to compensation for news content. Meta is further retaliating by ending a journalism fellowship program with The Canadian Press newswire.
The motivation of the tech giants is obvious—they don’t want to pay what they are calling a “link tax.” According to Meta, journalism content contributes such a small amount to their annual earnings it’s easier for them to just yank it.
They’ve also argued that the Online News Act simply isn’t fair. Google characterizes Bill C-18 as charging the platform for doing the news industry a favour, by “facilitating Canadians’ access to news from Canadian publishers.” Online platforms are the ones directing eyes to news websites—why are they getting punished for it?
Rodriguez said he was surprised by Google’s announcement. However, the companies did exactly what they had been threatening to do. Google had begun testing ways of blocking Canadians’ access to news websites back in February.
They did the exact same thing in Australia when the News Media Bargaining Code (NMBC)—which Bill C-18 is based on—was being debated. Meta blocked Australians from accessing or posting news content—including charities, emergency services and the weather.
The NMBC was eventually implemented in Australia with some changes.
Now that more countries are trying to follow suit (there is a similar bill in the works in the United States), Google and Meta are fighting to make sure Canada doesn’t reinforce the Australian precedent.
Justin Trudeau responded intractably to Google and Meta’s announcements, “the fact that these internet giants would rather cut off Canadians’ access to local news than pay their fair share is a real problem, and now they’re resorting to bullying tactics to try and get their way. It’s not going to work.”
Meta’s head of public policy in Canada, Rachel Curran, is similarly immovable. “Our trajectory is set. There is no way to negotiate out of the framework of this bill.”
Which side will win this staring contest remains to be seen. Bill C-18 won’t come into effect until the end of 2023. In the meantime, uncertainty will grip the industry.
To assuage fears, Rodriguez has said that if companies remove news from their platforms the government will make sure newsrooms have the resources they need to continue their work. He didn’t expand on how.
Lifeline or cash grab?
So it would seem that Canadian news media is suffocating under the weight of tech monopolies and they need the Online News Act to save them.
But whether or not Bill C-18 can even do that is up for debate.
It’s small and local news outlets that have been struggling the most, and will benefit the least from C-18’s redistribution of wealth. Of the money generated for news outlets, around 75 per cent would go to broadcasters such as the CBC, Bell, Shaw and Rogers. None of these companies are in dire straits.
There are also worries that a link tax would incentivize clickbait rather than quality journalism.
Matt Hatfield, Campaigns Director of OpenMedia, expressed all these concerns when he criticized Bill C-18 extensively: “Instead of providing support to independent news outlets, Bill C-18 will see boosted funding for legacy national media outlets, while small local outlets will be left to bleed out… Instead of re-opening the local news outlets that Canadians have lost, the great majority of funding is earmarked for large national chains, with no requirement to spend it on public interest reporting. And C-18 encourages them to spend that money poorly. By rewarding the spread of their content on social media, it incentivizes poor quality clickbait journalism, not the high-quality, well researched, investigative reporting that Canadians actually need.”
Before Bill C-18 was passed, there was momentarily an amendment on the table to exclude campus, community, and Indigenous broadcasters from the bill, so only for-profit commercial outlets, plus the CBC, would get money. The amendment was defeated, but it raised suspicions regarding the purpose of the bill.
For all the grandiose claims about protecting a free and democratic Canadian press, under the surface Bill C-18 looks like just a cash grab—one monopolistic wing of the capitalist class lobbying the government to redistribute the profits of its competitors into its own pockets.
Hypocrisy of the ‘free press’ under capitalism
Rodriguez has vowed, “Canada needs to have a strong, free and independent press, it’s fundamental to our democracy.”
But that raises the question—what free press?
All this debacle has revealed is that news outlets are not in the business of hard-hitting journalism, they are in the business of selling ad space. How “free and independent” can the press be when they live or die by advertising revenue? Advertising that can be pulled if companies disagree with the editorial line of who they’re advertising with?
The Online News Act does not make Canadian News any more independent. As the capricious retaliation of Google and Meta has shown, news outlets are dependent on the good will of these major tech monopolies featuring their links.
While supporters of Bill C-18 have been complaining about those tech monopolies sucking up advertising profits, there have been no alarm bells ringing over Postmedia eating up its competitors, consolidating more and more news media under one owner. Postmedia, owner of The National Post, as well as scores of smaller papers across the country, is set to merge with Nordstar, owner of the Toronto Star. They claim that they will maintain independent editorial lines, but inevitably these two banners will be united in defending the interests of their common owner. That owner, by the way, is American hedge fund Chatham Asset Management.
The Canadian news media is beholden to one capitalist monopoly or another. And reporting will reflect the interests of whoever is paying the bills—that is, the interests of the ruling class, not of workers, youth, or the oppressed.
We saw this during the recent national PSAC strike, when newspapers across the political spectrum (such as it is) slandered struggling workers as pampered latte-sippers who would trigger a recession.
Right now, British Columbia longshoremen are on strike, and our “free and independent” press is raising the call for their democratic rights to be stripped with back-to-work legislation.
It is very true that independent news media facilitates democracy and political participation, but we cannot legislate our way to a free press, certainly not a free press that will reflect the interests of the working class. For real freedom of the press, workers would have to take the big tech and news monopolies into their own hands, and manage them democratically – not for the profit of a minority, but as a public service that serves an important social need. Workers’ control of the media would enable the immense resources of these media companies to be used to fund quality journalism, accessible to everyone free of charge, that reflects the interests of working people.
In the meantime, we need to build an independent workers’ press, one that is not beholden to advertisers or the state, but to the workers and youth who read it. That’s what we’re doing with Fightback and La Riposte socialiste. Support us in this goal by subscribing!