Opinion

Letter from the editor: Rebutting critics of the Online News Act

Two weeks ago, the Liberal government unveiled Bill C-18, the Online News Act. The legislation would essentially make tech giants pay news publishers for their content. In plain terms, it would force news publishers and Facebook and Google, specifically, to negotiate deals to license any of the publishers’ content that appears on the tech companies’ platforms. If those negotiations fail, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the country’s broadcast and telecoms regulator, would assign an arbitrator to mediate an agreement. 

I spoke out in favour of this legislation last summer because, as I wrote then, “We’ve gone from the government picking winners to Silicon Valley tech giants doing so—and frankly, I’m not sure what’s worse.” 

In principle, I don’t support either the government or Big Tech funding news organizations. For years I tried to push back against these measures. But I now concede that Bill C-18 is a necessary evil in order to maintain balance in Canada’s media ecosystem.

As a lifelong journalist, a startup founder and a student of innovation, I didn’t come to my position lightly. Whatever pride I’ve had to swallow to reverse my position pales in comparison to my duty to The Logic’s readers, employees and shareholders. 

Critics of the bill have spilled much metaphorical ink. Some have called it a “shakedown.” But this difficult issue requires nuance, not blustery rhetoric. We’re past the point of debating the premise of the bill, of whether it’s right to make Big Tech pay for journalism, because they already are—and that has profound consequences for the media industry. 

I want to address several of these criticisms from the perspective of someone running a news startup. Before I do, a disclosure: The Logic remains unaffiliated with any industry lobby group, and this column expresses only my own views as a publisher. Since September 2020, when it became apparent that my role as both CEO and editor-in-chief represented a potential journalistic conflict of interest, I have recused myself from all newsroom conversations on these matters, and have no say in how The Logic’s reporters and editors cover this file.

On to the criticisms, and my responses:

Bill C-18 will stifle innovation and discourage diversity in media

Once Google and Facebook started signing licensing deals with select publishers in Canada, as they did in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, it tilted the playing field—and that stifles innovation and discourages diversity. 

In this country, they’ve signed deals with at least 19 publishers, 10 of which are getting money from both platforms. None of the terms are public. This isn’t the marketplace doing its thing. It’s Big Tech buying off a select few desperate media companies in an effort to head off legislation. 

This is perhaps the most important point to emphasize about Bill C-18: it’s not the beginning of a process; it’s the end. Its passage will correct a distortion of the market. If you want to encourage innovation and diverse viewpoints in Canada, you should support this legislation, because it will level the playing field. 

Bill C-18 is a threat to journalistic independence 

You know what’s a threat to journalistic independence? Publishers signing deals governed by confidentiality agreements with Big Tech firms for undisclosed sums.

Speaking at a publishers’ conference earlier this week, Richard Gingras, Google’s head of news, said, “The [Google News] Showcase deals we did in Australia are consistent with Showcase deals we’ve done elsewhere in the world.” 

If that’s true, then the deals Google has already struck with some large publishers in Canada could range from the A$5million per year that The Guardian Australia reportedly receives, to the A$69million News Corp is rumoured to receive annually—and that doesn’t include the additional money from deals struck with Facebook. 

So are large Canadian publishers getting $5 million a year from Google and Facebook? $10 million? $50 million? We simply don’t know.

Bill C-18 would require that the terms of those deals be made public in some capacity, and give the arbitrator the information necessary to ensure tech companies aren’t picking winners. 

(There is one potential loophole: if a platform and a publisher strike a separate deal for an advertising contract or in-kind contributions for programmatic advertising credits, it won’t be included in the public disclosures under the bill. There is the potential to use some clever accounting to reduce the legislation’s impact.) 

Bill C-18 will lead to censorship

The University of Ottawa’s Michael Geist and Carleton University’s Dwayne Winseck, both frequent commentators on the digital-media landscape, have each alleged that they have had columns written on Bill C-18 “spiked” by editors at major Canadian daily newspapers. They’ve offered this as evidence that Bill C-18 is already stifling free speech. I’ll confess that this line of argument has me flummoxed. 

It’s important to distinguish between reported pieces of journalism and opinion. At a well-functioning journalism outlet, a media outlet’s news-gathering department is independent, its sanctity protected by its editors, while an entirely separate department responsible for editorials and op-eds reports up to the publisher, who has the right to use the section as they see fit to express the official voice of the publication. 

This is all to say that the rejection of an op-ed is entirely within a publisher’s traditional remit, and it’s a leap to suggest it’s a suppression of free speech.

Where I do agree with Winseck and Geist is that without knowing how much Big Tech deals are contributing to newsroom budgets, and without regulation to make sure all outlets are being treated fairly in negotiations, we have no idea whether newsrooms are incentivized not to pursue coverage those companies could see as critical.

The government shouldn’t be in the business of regulating the internet

I am in strong agreement that the government should not be in the business of regulating the open web. But Facebook and Google are not the internet. 

They are companies that have built centralized, for-profit platforms on top of the internet, funnelling information to users through their proprietary algorithms. They are the subject of antitrust efforts in the U.S. and Europe. They should not be deified in a way that grants them legislative immunity. 

Even Tim Berners-Lee, the godfather of the World Wide Web, thinks unregulated platforms have gone too far, telling Vanity Fair last year: “We demonstrated that the web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places.” The web’s increasing centralization, he said, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

Now, even the platforms themselves are pouring resources into building a new internet—a metaverse.

If you’re in support of an open web, then you should also be in support of efforts to decentralize it.

Bill C-18 imposes a link tax

At that publishers’ conference this week, Gingras—in his first public remarks since the legislation was unveiled—said Google “is continuing to analyze the legislation in Canada. There are troubling aspects to it. It does include a link tax, which is unfortunate, and again, not healthy for the ecosystem going forward.” 

Some critics have also used this argument. To be clear: Bill C-18 does not create a link tax.

This is not the nanny state coming after you for linking to a news article in a social media post or from a blog. According to Section 6 of the act, platforms must have “a significant bargaining power imbalance” to be forced into negotiations with publishers. The cabinet will determine this threshold based on market size and revenue. It will likely affect Facebook and Google, but not Twitter. 

Nowhere does the legislation assign value to an individual hyperlink outside the scope of the negotiation of a licensing agreement between platform and publisher. Further, the transactions are between the platforms and the publishers. The public purse doesn’t benefit.   

Even Winseck, one C-18’s most vocal critics, conceded this point, writing in a piece for TVO that “the act does not impose a link tax on Google and Facebook for linking to news.”

The CRTC will now wreak havoc on Canadian journalism

I make no judgment on the competence of the CRTC, but I think some of the bill’s critics are magnifying its proposed role in the platform-publisher relationship. It’s my understanding that the CRTC will only be playing an administrative role, assessing which tech platforms and publishers are affected under the criteria that the cabinet will establish and appointing an arbitrator to settle unsuccessful negotiations. They will not be setting the criteria or making arbitrary judgment calls on who’s in or who’s out. 

I do agree with critics that this part of C-18 needs to be more clearly explained, including the criteria that the CRTC will use to select arbitrators. There is a risk that an arbitrator may define value based on outdated incentives like web traffic and page views, which would be antithetical to any effort to improve the Canadian journalism ecosystem.

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Almost everyone commenting on this legislation is self-interested—including me. Big Tech doesn’t want to have to pay out more to publishers than it already has. Publishers who’ve already struck deals have an advantage over competitors who haven’t. Many of the publishers opposing the legislation on principle have specific audiences they know will be receptive to a fundraising appeal to make up for their rejection of subsidies from government or Big Tech. And some like me—the CEO of a private, for-profit company—have a fiduciary duty to level the playing field with their competitors.

I take no pleasure from the argument. This isn’t a fight I sought out. But I can’t stress this enough: Big Tech companies have already struck deals with Canadian publishers. These deals are already distorting the ecosystem. Bill C-18 seeks to rectify that imbalance.

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