Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is less than 48 hours old, but the more you examine the bill, the worse it gets. My previous posts unpacked why the general policy is bad for press independence and competition as well as why the bill features a misguided attempt to require payments for links. Yet the bill requires an even deeper look since it goes far beyond “compensating journalists when they use their content” (as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said yesterday in the House of Commons) or even linking to news articles. Rather, the bill requires compensation for facilitating access to news in any way and in any amount.
In doing so, it eviscerates the claim that there is a tangible connection between the requirement to pay for the value of news articles on social media and search platforms (called digital news intermediaries or DNI’s in the bill). Rather, Bill C-18 is a shakedown with requirements to pay for nothing more than listing Canadian media organizations with hyperlinks in a search index, social media post, or possibly even a tweet. At a time when we need the public to access to credible news, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez believes that large Internet companies that engage in the act of facilitating access to news – not copying, not using, not even directly linking – should pay for doing so.
The relevant provision in the bill is Section 2(2), which states:
For the purposes of this Act, news content is made available if
(a) the news content, or any portion of it, is reproduced;
(b) access to the news content, or any portion of it, is facilitated by any means, including an index, aggregation or ranking of news content.
The bill proceeds to require payments – either by way of agreements that must be approved by the CRTC or final offer arbitration – for DNIs who make available news content. Section 2(2)(a) covers what most Canadians would likely consider constitutes the “use” mentioned by the Prime Minister yesterday, namely the reproduction of news content by a DNI such as Facebook or Google. As it happens, those companies largely agree and have licensed news content where they reproduce the content in full.
More notable is Section 2(2)(b), which covers facilitating access to news content. This is certainly designed to cover linking but the broad language almost surely extends beyond linking to a specific article. Indeed, a link to the general home page of the Toronto Star, National Post, Globe and Mail or many other Canadian media sites can be said to facilitate access to news content, particularly since the provision adds that it can be just a “portion of it” and the facilitation can occur “by any means.”
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has made a point of contrasting his bill with the Australian code on the same issue. The Australian code treats three activities as making content available: reproduction of the content, providing an extract of the content (designed to target short blurbs of the stories), or links to the content. While that too is worthy of criticism (the Australian code has actually never been used), it does not cover mere facilitation of access.
Why does this matter?
There was a time when this government fashioned itself as pro-Internet, supportive of net neutrality, and a staunch defender of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press and other media of communication. Yet it cannot credibly claim to support those principles and simultaneously legislate barriers to accessing media by mandating payments for facilitating access to media sources.
Further, how is any of this possibly constitutional? Would the Supreme Court uphold a law whose effect could be to limit facilitation of access to news? Moreover, how does the entire Bill C-18 framework fit within the federal government’s jurisdiction? It isn’t broadcast, it isn’t telecommunications, and it isn’t copyright. If the government claims powers over anything involving the Internet then it believes there are no real limits on its jurisdiction.
Millions of Canadians choose to access media through search and social media. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, the resulting referral links already provide enormous value at no cost. Setting even that aside, mandating payments for services that facilitate access to media sources runs counter to basic freedoms and casts aside the suggestion that the bill is limited to a “quid pro quo” of payment for links to news articles. Bill C-18 is shamefully over-broad, an embarrassment to the news media lobby that demanded it, and unworthy of a government that sees itself as a model for the rest of the world on media freedoms.