On the very first day of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage’s hearings on the Online News Act last month, News Media Canada, the lead lobbyist for Bill C-18, was asked about a poll it commissioned this year which found 79% support requiring Google and Facebook to share revenue with Canadian news outlets. When Bloc MP Martin Champoux asked whether respondents were well informed, President and CEO Paul Deegen assured him “they were very well informed”. Deegan had a different response yesterday to another poll – this one commissioned by Google – as he took issue with the poll and warned that Google must provide “an honest presentation of the facts.” I have never thought any of these corporate-commissioned polls were of significant value and I’m not going to start now, whether it is News Media Canada or Google that is doing the commissioning. However, I think what makes the Google poll notable is the response to it, rather than the actual data.
First, the data. The poll finds that most Canadians are not familiar with the Online News Act – ie. not well informed – with only 8% of respondents saying they were very familiar with the bill and 67% either having only heard of it or only heard of it when taking the survey. When asked about issues that matter, the two issues cited as most important were not treating misinformation as news under the Act and ensuring that eligible news outlets follow journalistic standards. The poll continues with some of Google’s concerns: the power of the CRTC, payments for links, disincentives to demote misinformation, and eligibility of foreign news companies for the system. The majority of respondents unsurprisingly express concern about those issues, which then leads to 59% supporting reforms to the bill.
While I don’t think any of these results are particularly surprising (and concern about misinformation should be heartening), the government and supporters of Bill C-18 reacted with alarm. Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s spokesperson said the company was continuing to try to “avoid accountability.” News Media Canada made the comments noted above, while Taylor Owen tweeted that many of the questions raised concerns about the bill that weren’t true and that the survey did not serve the public interest in having a reasonable debate about it. I don’t recall similar objections to the News Media Canada poll which could be critiqued on much the same grounds.
I think the response is notable for two reasons. First, supporters “doth protest too much” since the questions do reflect legitimate concerns about the bill. As I’ve written, the CRTC intervention in the news media would be unprecedented with this bill. That may not mean the Commission would have “sweeping new powers to regulate every aspect of the Canadian news industry” (presumably a reference to the code of conduct it can establish), but the question is closer to reality than Rodriguez’s false claim that his bill involves “minimal market intervention.” Similarly, the “facilitating access to news” standard for payments targets even basic search results to news sites, there are no minimum journalistic standards built into the law, and there are real risks that Bill C-18 will increase clickbait and misinformation. There is room for reasoned debate around these issues, but the government and Bill C-18 supporters don’t want to have that conversation. Instead, as demonstrated by yesterday’s reaction, they are much more comfortable having a discussion about unaccountable platforms rather than unaccountable government.
Second, the strong reaction reflects the reality that the poll runs counter to the government’s primary strategy on Bill C-18, namely to limit public awareness and debate on the bill. Minister Rodriguez has incredibly never even given a speech on his own bill in the House of Commons and the government cut off debate after only a couple of hours in the House. The committee “study” has been embarrassing. The Minister and officials have still not appeared, despite the common approach of appearing twice – once to open the hearings and then at the conclusion of witnesses to address issues that were raised. The hearings themselves (there have been two so far – I appeared in the first hearing – with a further hearing scheduled for this week) have been a grab bag of witnesses often headlined by a government-backed non-Canadian witness invited to criticize the tech companies. The goal is quite clearly to limit study of the actual bill that might identify and address potential concerns.
Further, the list of those who haven’t been invited is lengthy:
- Where is the CRTC, which will administer the system?
- Where is the CBC, which is a beneficiary?
- Where is Bell, Canada’s largest media company that also stands to gain?
- Where are the Internet platforms such as Facebook or Twitter?
- Where are the independent Canadian media companies such as Village Media or Overstory Media?
- Where are the legacy media companies such as FP Newspapers, which urged the government to establish a fund instead during a prior consultation?
- Where are the podcast networks who could get included in the bill?
- Where are the digital ad experts who could shed light on the state of the market?
- Where are the authors of the Shattered Mirror report or the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review panel, which grappled with these issues?
- Where are the myriad of independent experts who have been either publicly supportive or critical of the bill such as Taylor Owen, Sue Gardner, Dwayne Winseck, Mark Edge, April Lindgren, and Konrad von Finckenstein?
- Where are consumer groups such as PIAC which participated in earlier consultations?
- Where are the Internet groups such as Open Media?
- Where are the civil liberties groups and independent journalism groups?
At this stage, they are nowhere to be found. And I suspect that is why this poll generated such a visceral reaction from the government. Not because it might misinform the public, but because it might at least place the bill on the public’s radar screen and raise questions about the real-world implications of a deeply flawed legislative proposal that the government hopes to rush through with minimal review or attention.