Earlier this year, the government deployed disturbing anti-democratic tactics by repeatedly cutting off debate on Bill C-11 in both the House of Commons and during clause-by-clause review of the bill. As a result, MPs rushed to vote on over 150 amendments, most without public disclosure of what was even being voted on. That approach rightly sparked anger and has even led supporters of Bill C-11 to ask the Senate to remedy unexpected amendments that were not subject to any public debate. As bad as that was, later today the government will arguably engage in an even more problematic tactic, as it moves to block dozens of potential witnesses from presenting their views on the Online News Act (Bill C-18).
Minutes after Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez answers committee questions on the bill for the very first time this afternoon, the government – backed by the NDP – is expected to shut down further witnesses at the Bill C-18 hearings and move directly to clause-by-clause review. As a result, dozens of stakeholders and experts will be blocked from giving testimony to the Heritage committee. For a government that once prided itself on consultation, the decision to block further committee testimony is a remarkable abdication of the principles of a consultative, inclusive approach to legislative development.
The decision to shut down witnesses at the Bill C-18 hearing is particularly problematic given the importance of the bill (it has major implications for the free flow of information online and an independent press), the myriad of concerns (payments for links, risk to increased clickbait and misinformation, government intervention), and the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s estimate that the majority of revenues will go to the CBC and broadcast giants such as Bell.
Further, the committee study has been embarrassing. Today’s hearing will be only the fourth on a 44 page bill. By comparison, the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans has held ten meetings just on the role of science within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The hearings themselves have been a grab bag of witnesses often headlined by a government-backed non-Canadian witness invited to criticize the tech companies. The goal has been readily apparent: limit study of the actual bill and draw as little attention as possible to a lobbyist-driven piece of legislation that primarily benefits some of Canada’s richest companies.
Who is the government blocking from potentially appearing by shutting down committee hearings? Just some possibilities who have not appeared thus far include:
- Facebook: the company may not have many supporters, but how can the government expect the company to pay hundreds of millions of dollars as envisioned by the bill and not even permit it to appear before committee?
- Platforms such as Apple, Twitter, and TikTok, which are all potentially subject to the legislation
- CBC, which is a major beneficiary of the bill, raising serious competitive concerns
- Bell, Rogers, Corus, Shaw and other broadcasters who stand to be the biggest beneficiaries from the bill
- Legacy print newspapers organizations such as FP Newspapers, which previously urged the government to establish a fund, rather than the C-18 approach
- Foreign media companies such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and others that are eligible to participate under the bill
- Independent Online News Publishers of Canada representing over 100 independent media organizations that have expressed concerns with the bill.
- Jeff Elgie, CEO of Village Media, one of Canada’s leading local, digital media groups
- Farhan Mohamed of Overstory Media, a leading Western digital media group
- Jesse Brown of Canadaland, one of Canada’s top independent podcast networks
- Erin Millar of Indiegraf, which has launched a News Startup Fund
- Brandi Schier of the Discourse, an innovative BC based news site
- Former CRTC Chair Konrad von Finckenstein, who has written on the bill and the need for reform
- Sue Gardner, a former head of CBC.ca, who has published an extensive critique of the bill
- April Lindgren, the TMU professor who leads the Local News Research Project
- Colette Brin, a Laval professor who chairs the committee on Qualifying Canadian Journalism Organization accreditation
- Ed Greenspon, who led the Shattered Mirror study and report
- Taylor Owen and Supriya Dwivedi, who wrote a supportive analysis of the bill over the summer
- Dwayne Winseck, who leads a major initiative on the media economy at Carleton University
- Heidi Tworek, a UBC professor who focuses on the history of media regulation
- Monica Auer of FRPC, one of Canada’s leading experts on the CRTC and communications governance
- UNIFOR, a leading media workers union
- Global Affairs officials to speak to CUSMA compliance
- CCIA, which has written on potential trade violations
- the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who has provided estimates on the costs and benefits of the legislation
- Consumer groups such as PIAC, which has expertise on CRTC process and consumer concerns
- Internet groups such as Open Media, which has thousands of members who have been vocal on this bill and the Internet Society, Canada Chapter
- Justice officials on the constitutionality of the bill that appears to encroach on provincial jurisdiction
- Copyright experts to speak to the copyright provisions in the bill and the Berne Convention
- Competition law experts to speak to the issues arising from creating Competition Act exceptions
- Digital advertising experts to speak to the state of digital advertising
This is just the tip of the iceberg of stakeholders and experts that could provide insight into the bill and help craft potential amendments. Note that this list includes both supporters and critics of the bill. This isn’t about lining up critics, but rather ensuring that Canada develops legislation that facilitates both original journalism and media innovation and limits potential harms. I don’t believe Bill C-18 meets those goals, but even supporters of the bill must surely admit that shutting down the hearings and blocking many relevant witnesses does not serve the interests of good public policy. Indeed, blocking stakeholders from participating in the process is a stain on Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and a government that once committed to public consultation and engagement.