Small news outlets and media and internet experts say the Online News Act, also known as Bill C-18, has had a serious impact so far, and it may be about to get much worse.
“We’re losing, and that means the community is losing,” said Theresa Blackburn, owner of the River Valley Sun, which covers daily news from Perth-Andover to Nackawic in western New Brunswick online and also prints a monthly paper with a circulation of about 6,000.
The four-year-old publication found itself cut off from readers and viewers in July, when Meta blocked Canadian news on its platforms in response to new federal legislation that was supposed to force big internet companies to pay for the news content they make available.
The transition has gone fairly well since the paper launched its own website four months ago, said Blackburn, but reader engagement has fallen dramatically.
River Valley Sun stories used to get 800,000 likes, shares or comments a month on Facebook. Now the paper gets 60,000 visits a month on rivervalleysun.ca, where stories can’t be shared on Facebook.
The paper lacks the resources to allow comments, which, for legal reasons, would require constant monitoring.
Fewer live reports
It’s nice having local control, Blackburn said, but the paper isn’t able to do as many live reports.
That hurts its bottom line, she said, because it used to get thousands of dollars in revenue from live-streaming events for local businesses and organizations.
It also hurts the journalistic product, said Blackburn, and puts public safety at risk.
“At some point in time someone isn’t going to get the information they need to be safe,” she said.
Many outlets affected
The Sun is not alone. A group of 20 other news outlets across Canada, including the New Brunswick Media Co-Op, say the Facebook ban has been “a big crisis,” affecting how they reach viewers, readers and listeners.
They’ve formed a new collaborative news platform called Unrigged, hoping to jointly benefit from a critical mass of their pooled material and share the costs of a website.
The survival of the River Valley Sun this long, through the pandemic and the Meta news ban, goes to show the importance of local news, said Blackburn, but she’s not sure how they’ll cope with what may be coming next.
Canadian users seeking Canadian news content have been blocked from viewing it. (Meta)
Google has said it will remove links to news from its products in Canada when the Online News Act entirely takes effect, which will be no later than Dec. 19 — 180 days after it received royal assent.
A member of the company’s media relations department, Shay Purdy, told CBC News those plans are still accurate.
Google said in its submission on the draft regulations that the new law is “unworkable” because free linking is the foundation of the open web.
It maintained that as a company it already supports journalism by linking people to Canadian news sites, to the greater benefit of news companies and Canadians than to its own bottom line.
It called the act “deeply discriminatory” because it’s the only company being asked to pay — an estimated $172 million annually, a minimum of four per cent of its Canadian revenues, while only two per cent of its searches are for news.
It advocated more flexibility and suggested several amendments to the legislation so that among other things, it would only have to pay for “displaying news content,” not for simply linking to it, and video and ad platforms would be excluded.
Google recently reached a deal to pay publishers in Germany the equivalent of about CA $4.8 million a year. They had been seeking more than $600 million.
The Google logo is seen on a computer in this photo illustration in Washington, DC, on July 10, 2019. (Alastair Pike/AFP/Getty Images)
The River Valley Sun relies on Google searches for 47 per cent of its website traffic, said Blackburn, and without YouTube or Facebook, she’s not sure how they’d get their videos out.
Meta, on the other hand, has lost little or no audience or advertising since it banned Canadian news, said Chris Waddell of Carleton University’s school of journalism, formerly of CBC News and the Globe and Mail.
It’s also been spared a lot of trouble dealing with things such as disinformation, misinformation and inflammatory comments, said Waddell.
He’s pretty sure that even if Bill C-18 were to be killed, Meta wouldn’t bring news back.
Waddell has no idea if Google is really going to follow suit with a news ban, but he believes the consequences of that would be “a much more dramatic loss for all news organizations in Canada, both big and small.”
He places much of the blame for the situation on large, established news organizations, including CBC.
Instead of leveraging the traffic they got from tech platforms, by making their websites more user-friendly and engaging, they cluttered their stories and videos with ads and lobbied government to force Google and Facebook to give them money, he said.
But according to Blayne Haggart, Google and Meta are the parties mostly responsible for what’s happening.
Chris Waddell is an academic and former journalist specializing in business and finance. (Matthew Usherwood )
Haggart, an associate professor of political science at Brock University, has written some articles about Bill C-18 for the Centre for International Governance Innovation and recently published a book with Natasha Tusikov called The New Knowledge: Information, Data and the Remaking of Global Power.
“It’s tantamount to holding the country hostage,” he said of existing and threatened news bans.
“It’s a coercive use of power designed to bring the Canadian government and a democratic, legitimate legislature to heel,” said Haggart.
The tech companies have set themselves up as essential infrastructure for the delivery of information — including news — and want all of the benefits, including ad revenue, without any of the responsibilities, he said.
Haggart isn’t sure the government’s approach is the best way to promote and safeguard a healthy information ecosystem, but it is a “legitimate” way, he said, having been passed by Parliament with the support of three parties and been implemented successfully in other countries such as Australia, where it has led to the hiring of more journalists.
Google has said the Australian legislation is different because it only applies to designated companies. It also created an incentive for the various parties to reach voluntary agreements, so it hasn’t been necessary yet to designate any companies, including Google.
In Canada, the big internet companies aren’t being asked for much, said Haggart — basically, to pay into a fund to be overseen by the CRTC and to not unduly discriminate against any particular news outlet by downranking its content, making its stories harder to find.
“That would be an enormous win for Canada and Canadians,” he said, whereas a news ban by Google would be a big loss.
“Social media is one thing, but everybody depends on search,” said Haggart, noting Google has about 90 per cent of the Canadian search engine market.
“It’s basically how people find information.”
The silver lining would be if people are driven to other platforms, so Google didn’t have such a stranglehold, he said.
“The fact they’re able to threaten an entire Canadian industry and Canadians’ access to information, which is vital to a democracy, is proof that they have far too much power and have been given far too much leeway for far too long,” said Haggart.
Blackburn isn’t surprised if big corporations “don’t care about the little guy,” but she does want and expect the federal government to care.
She was hoping the standoff would be resolved by now and is receptive to the idea of the legislation being softened.
Blayne Haggart is an academic and former journalist and economist whose research focuses on intellectual property rights and data governance. (Submitted by Blayne Haggart)
The federal government doesn’t seem to be backing down. An emailed statement from the Canadian Heritage Minister’s office said it is “open to proposals that make the regulations stronger.”
Canadians expect “tech giants” to “pay their fair share for news,” it said.
“These tech platforms have to act responsibly and support the news sharing they and Canadians both benefit from,” said a statement attributed to Minister Pascale St-Onge.
The minister noted that hundreds of newsrooms and thousands of jobs in journalism have been lost in the last decade across the country.
“This has had a big impact on the capacity of Canadians to get high-quality, fact-based news and information,” she said.
The minister’s office said it continues to have “constructive discussions with platforms” and it is optimistic the Online News Act will help make news available to Canadians in a sustainable way.
“I believe we share the goal of ensuring quality access to information and news for Canadians,” said St-Onge.
Final regulations will be provided “in due time,” it said.
The CRTC said the bargaining process for news outlets and the big internet companies to negotiate compensation is only expected to begin late next year or in early 2025.
Blackburn remarked with a sense of irony that the River Valley Sun will have to change from a sole proprietorship to a corporation in order to be eligible for payments.