The battle between Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Internet giants Google and Facebook continues to head toward a seeming inevitable collision in which the government repeatedly says it will not be intimidated even as the two Internet companies block or reduce access to news content on their platforms in Canada. Reports last night indicate that Google is now testing blocking news links for a small percentage of Canadian users, with the company saying it needs to assess potential responses to Bill C-18. This follows earlier Facebook comments indicating that it would consider blocking news sharing on its platform if the bill is enacted in its current form.
The government’s standard line to these developments is that it won’t be intimidated by the companies with the belief that this is all just a bluff designed to influence the bill. As I argued months ago in the context of Facebook’s response, I think that’s wrong and I believe that if the bill passes largely in its current form, both companies will curtail linking to news in Canada. Bill C-18 is more than just a badly crafted piece of legislation that raises a myriad of concerns including risks to press independence, inconsistency with international copyright law, and harm to innovative digital news services that at best will receive a tiny fraction of any proceeds. There were better options for the government that would have supported journalism and avoided these harms, including establishing a fund for journalism backed by the Internet companies. But by creating a bill that effectively mandates payments for links and suggesting that the two companies alone could be held liable to pay for 35 percent of the news expenditures of Bell, CBC, Postmedia, Torstar, and hundreds of other outlets, the government has created a serious threat to the free flow of information online.
As the government trots out the bravado about not being intimidated, Canadians should keep three things in mind. First, Bill C-18 is fundamentally about paying for links. Last night, Rodriguez’s press spokesperson said “all we’re asking the tech giants to do is compensate journalists when they use their work.” But that isn’t what the bill does. The bill requires payments for “facilitating access to news”. That is a far cry from use as it instead covers links or inclusion in search results. The news articles themselves reside on the publisher sites and are not reproduced by either Internet company, yet I Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner has described this as theft. Bill C-18’s dangerous approach ascribes value to links where there isn’t any, regulates which platforms must pay in order to permit expression from their users, and dictates which sources are entitled to compensation. If you are a company that depends on links for all aspects of your business, establishing a precedent of payment for links is a non-starter.
Second, the government’s expectations for payment for links are massive, even if the companies involved weren’t in the process of laying off thousands of workers, including many Canadians. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates the bill will require the two companies to pay $329 million annually for links. The government’s own estimate is slightly lower at $215 million. Either way, more astonishing is Senator Peter Harder, the government’s representative on the bill, told the Senate that the government expects that the mandated payments could cover as much as 35% of news expenditures. The bill covers hundreds of businesses (the House actually expanded to hundreds of broadcasters that don’t even produce news) including some of Canada’s most powerful corporations: Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Corus, Postmedia, Torstar, Videotron, and the Globe and Mail among them. If this involved full reproduction of the news, that would be high. But paying 35% of the news expenditures at the CBC, Bell, or Postmedia for just for links to the originating source renders linking to the content uneconomic.
Third, Google already has a history of stopping news services in response to government legislation. For example, Google shut down Google News in Spain for eight years after that country passed copyright laws that raised liability concerns for the inclusion of snippets. It conducted the similar testing of blocking news content in search in Australia. More recently, it stopped its Google News service in Czechia as a result of the local copyright law implementation. In other words, companies respond to legal developments. Where offering a service becomes prohibitively expensive or uneconomic due to those developments, they may stop offering the service. That outcome seems entirely possible in light of Bill C-18’s mandated approach to link payments and the government’s expectation that the companies will pay hundreds of millions of dollars for “privilege” of referring Canadians back to the publishers. Should that come to pass, cries of intimidation will be cold comfort to Canadians blocked from sharing news or to innovative news services who find their business models undermined due to the repercussions from Bill C-18.
Woot woot! I hope Google and Facebook (and everyone else) both go to 100% blocking of sharing of news AND links to the big news conglomerates.
I hope the lack of link traffic completely sinks those big new conglomerates into complete and full bankruptcy. Those bastards deserve every bit of what they are asking for and what they are asking for, even though they don’t realize it is for a full and complete stopping of all traffic to their news-sites. Advertisers on those sites will run once they see the massive traffic drop and thus the only avenue of revenue these sites have will dry up. And so will they.
Die big news, die.
Long live the innovators of new business models.
google already covers many of expenses by cutting adsense program revenues.
News publishers made this bed, now they will lay in it. I suspect news publishers are more interested in retiring than they are in the long-term viability of their product in an internet age. This would explain their shortsightedness and their selling out.
Both publishers and the Liberals seem to be banking on the fact that they can just blame big tech for disappeared links. But both are underestimating how much the public dislikes the news and the Liberals in the first place.
Facebook’s news blocking a few years ago was pretty heavy handed and attracted a bunch of political attention. But if big tech acts slowly and quietly, they may get what they want because news politics is so arcane that people might not pay much attention to the Liberals complaining about it.
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I use a VPN… what blocking? Surf smart, sheeple!
Does your VPN work for most (i.e. Netflix) streaming services or are they whack-a-mole blocking your VPN?
Ultimately, the end end-game of using VPNs to get around geo-blocking (which is what this is effectively) is a losing battle as eventually all VPN egress points get blocked by sites trying to geo-block such as Netflix, Disney, and soon-too-be-Google-for-news.
Bottom line is that we should not have to waste our lives playing cat-and-mouse/whack-a-mole games to watch the content we want to watch and read the news we want to read without the government interfering with those choices. That’s what you should be fighting for rather than just thinking that VPNs are always going to be the answer.
Governments should not be in the business of force-feeding us the content or news that *they* think we should be seeing, but rather the freedom of source of those should be ours.
The top of the slippery slope is the government forcing priority/selection on us (i.e. Bills C11 and C18). The bottom of the slope is the 1940s-Nazi-Germany destroying/blocking (i.e book burning) of all content that is does not meet the government’s criteria.
The only question that remains is how long is the ride down from the top of the slope to the bottom?
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