Bill C-18, the Online News Act, appeared to be headed to clause-by-clause review this week. But the mounting attention on the bill – notably Facebook’s revelation that it would consider stopping news sharing in Canada if the bill passes in its current form – may have persuaded MPs to add several additional hearings, including one on Friday that will feature both Facebook and OpenMedia. The Facebook issue adds to the growing concerns with the bill, particularly the exclusion of many small media outlets due to restrictive eligibility criteria and a Parliamentary Budget Officer estimate that over 75% of the benefits – hundreds of millions of dollars – will go to broadcast giants such as Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Corus, and the CBC. Newspapers will be left fighting over the remaining scraps, if they’re eligible for anything. Indeed, as many small media outlets have noted, eligibility requirements to have QCJO status or regularly employ at least two journalists means that many small weeklies or digital startups will fall outside the system.
Canadians might think that excluding small news outlets while promising big payments for Bell, Rogers, and the CBC would be a government concern, but apparently it is not. When asked about the issue before the Heritage committee, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said that “small media are more interested in the other programs that exist than in C-18.” This remarkable acknowledgement – along with the admission that the department has not even studied the implications of changing the eligibility requirements to address small media concerns – suggests that the risky approach is no accident or simply a case of indifference.
The corporate media lobby perspective is easier to understand given that most of the Bill C-18 money would go to those lobby groups. Further, even the risk that Facebook stops news sharing does not affect the entire news sector in the same way. The government seems to think Facebook is bluffing, but with its stock is tanking amid declining ad revenues and its decision to exit deals with news publishers elsewhere, the notion that it would walk away from deals with CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times but pay be willing to pay $100 million (as some estimate) primarily to Canadian corporate radio and TV station owners and the CBC seems fanciful. If it did walk away from news sharing, CBC would still get its public funding and Bell’s radio stations would hardly notice the change. However, small news outlets that rely on social media would be hard hit. For legacy competitors facing new digital-only upstarts, the reduction in competition wouldn’t be the worst outcome even if it hurts Canadians access to a diverse range of news sources.
If all of this sounds familiar, it is because it is straight out of the Bill C-11 playbook. For months, digital first creators have warned that Bill C-11 could cause enormous harm to their careers and livelihood. In response, legacy creators shrugged their shoulders and Rodriguez denied that the bill will affect digital creators, a position debunked by the CRTC chair and experts from across the country. Much the same dynamic is now playing out with Bill C-18. Over a hundred digital news outlets raised concerns months ago, yet Rodriguez says that the department has not even studied the implications of alternatives. As for the big payouts for Bell, Rogers and the CBC and the exclusion of small media outlets, he suggests that the small outlets aren’t much interested in the bill.
There are a myriad of problems with Bill C-18: risks to the free flow of information online, risks of increased misinformation, and government intervention in an area that could undermine an independent press. On top of that, the data suggests that the market has already stabilized, with no net new losses of news outlets over almost the past two years. Government programs have been worth tens of millions of dollars to Canada’s media giants, including Postmedia, which alone has received over $26 million from the federal journalism tax credit over the past four years. There may be room for more help, but not if the policy will harm small and innovative news organizations or the outcome means restrictions on content appearing on social media. The harm to small business has been the core issue surrounding Bill C-11 and it appears there are parallel concerns with Bill C-18 with a similarly indifferent response from the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the corporate media lobby.