The Liberal government tabled a bill today that will require online platforms to strike deals with media organizations for the displaying of their content.
“As you guys know, the news sector in Canada is in crisis and this contributes to the heightened public mistrust and the rise of harmful disinformation in our society,” Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said while announcing Bill C-18 in a press conference in Ottawa on April 5.
Rodriguez said that news organizations are disappearing in a changing information landscape where online platforms are collecting the lion’s share of ad revenues.
“In 2020, online advertising revenues in Canada were close to $10 billion, with two dominant digital platforms taking over 80 percent of those revenues. That’s an incredible chunk of power in the market,” Rodriguez said in reference to Google and Facebook’s market share.
Rodriguez added that as news is being shared more widely online, journalists and newsrooms are not earning their fair share.
Under the new law, online platforms will need to strike revenue deals with a number of media organizations until they fill a list of six criteria, after which they will be exempted from making more deals.
Among the criteria listed in a Heritage Canada briefing document, platforms are required to “not allow corporate influence to undermine the freedom of expression and journalistic independence enjoyed by news outlets,” and “Involve a range of news businesses reflecting Canada’s diversity of languages, racialized groups, Indigenous communities, and local news and business models.”
When asked during the press conference whether some media outlets could be left out of deals with the tech companies once they fill their six criteria, Rodriguez admitted that may indeed be the case, but said “it’s almost impossible” as the bill was crafted in a way to include as many entities as possible.
Beneficiaries of the program include organizations designated as a “Qualified Canadian journalism organization” under the Income Tax Act, as well as entities employing two or more journalists in Canada, or that operate in Canada and produce news. The document says beneficiaries would also be those that “are not significantly engaged in producing content that promotes its interests or reports on the activities of an organization.”
Media entities will be able to negotiate, on their own or collectively, and it will go to arbitration if a deal cannot be struck.
While presented as a means to help media organizations generate more revenues, the Heritage briefing document mentions other objectives such as to “counter the rise of disinformation by supporting fact-based journalism” and to “uphold press independence from interference by Government or private entities.”
Ottawa University law professor Michael Geist has raised doubts about the claim of increased independence in an article published on his website on April 5.
Geist, a Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law, says the bill is the fruit of lobbying from the largest players in the media industry, some of which he says abandoned press independence in the process of lobbying efforts.
“For example, I know of cases where opinion pieces have been spiked by mainstream media outlets because they criticized the previous Heritage Minister at a time when he was being actively lobbied on a potential media bill,” he wrote.
He also says the bill increases dependence on big tech instead of creating alternatives and fostering innovation, among several other concerns.
Three Online Bills
Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is the second of three legislative pieces the Liberal government is introducing to increase governmental oversight and steering of online content and activities.
Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, completed a first reading in the House on Feb. 2. The bill seeks to give the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) the mandate to regulate the internet and impose on it a progressive framework, which some critics say will amount to censorship.
“Users of online and social media services expect freedom of expression, and they will continue to enjoy this under the new Broadcasting Act,” said CRTC chair Ian Scott in a speech at Ryerson University on April 1.
For its third bill seeking to curtail “online harms” by regulating speech, the government announced the creation of an expert panel on March 30 that will provide advice on how to craft the legislation. An earlier assessment by The Epoch Times found that many of the people on the panel share the government’s view on some contentious issues, and some work for organizations financed by Ottawa.