Last week, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez introduced Bill C-18, the Online News Act, a bill that adopts an extreme approach to compensation by requiring payments for merely facilitating access to news in any way and in any amount. As a result, the Canadian government envisions mandated payments not only for copying or reproducing the news or for directly linking to news articles, but also for general links to news sites. But the concerns with Bill C-18 do not end there. The bill threatens press independence in two important respects.
First, the bill increases dependence on the Internet companies, both in terms of reliance on the new revenues and by virtue of the fact that the Internet companies – not Canadian media – effectively dictate how the new revenues will be spent. This is the inevitable result of a system in which the Internet companies must prove to the CRTC that their deals with Canadian media will allocate a significant portion of the compensation to support local production of news content.
Second, press independence is threatened by the self-censorship that Canadian media companies supportive of the bill are likely to pursue. I raised this concern last week, noting:
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. Those decisions come on top of blank front pages and advertorials designed to curry support for the measures. The blurring of editorial and financial may be a fact of life, but it ultimately diminishes the credibility of the media.
This comment was based on first-hand experience. In 2021, I pitched an opinion piece on then Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to one of Canada’s leading media outlets. The opinions editor liked the idea and worked with me over several drafts to finalize the piece. I was told it was ready for publication and then I waited. And waited. And was then told the piece was spiked by upper management given the subject matter and the campaign for legislative support from Canadian Heritage.
It should therefore come as little surprise that the same issue has already arisen with respect to Bill C-18. News coverage has appropriately provided balanced reporting, but masthead editorials and opinion pieces drive in a single direction with no shortage of supportive op-eds: the National Post, Toronto Star, Winnipeg Free Press, and Toronto Sun among them. In fact, I’ve been advised that further commissioned opinion pieces are on the way. Yet Carleton professor Dwayne Winseck reports that he had an approved piece that raised criticisms of the bill spiked by the National Post (the Toronto Star spiked an opinion piece of his last year on similar grounds).
To be clear, no one is entitled to space for an op-ed and there are multiple ways for people to make their voices heard. However, Minister Rodriguez has emphasized that his bill is designed to support an independent press free from government interference or pressure. Pressure can come in many ways and the pressure to support the Minister and the government on Bill C-18 is palpable.
Wikipedia describes censorship as:
Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information. This may be done on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or “inconvenient”. Censorship can be conducted by governments, private institutions and other controlling bodies.
The term “censorship” is often thrown around too easily, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that that is precisely what is occurring here: the suppression of speech, public communication or other information considered inconvenient by a private institution. It is a direct result of Bill C-18, which has resulted in cheerleading from corporate media owners, suppression of critical views within the mainstream media, and risks to the fabric of the Internet by mandating payments for links.