The Senate hearings on Bill C-18, the Online News Act, resumed yesterday with two blockbuster panels that included the Globe and Mail, News Media Canada, La Presse, Le Devoir, Canadaland, The Line, and Village Media. The unmistakable takeaway was the enormous risks the bill creates to the independence of the press, to the future of digital media, and to the bottom lines of Canadian news outlets across the country. Further, it is increasingly apparent that the government has no real answers to these risks other than sabre rattling with tech companies and questioning the motives of critics of the legislation.
The eagerness to smear anyone who dares criticize the bill provided the most jaw-dropping moment of the hearing with Senator Peter Harder, the government’s representative in the Senate on the bill, suggesting that Bill C-18 criticism from Village Media’s Jeff Elgie, one of Canada’s most successful local digital news organizations, might be motivated by the business benefits of local media shutting down:
Your business model often goes into communities where local media has collapsed or gone bankrupt or out of business. That clearly has given you the opportunity, in Guelph, for a recent example, to expand your business. Given your lack of enthusiasm for this bill, is it safe to say that your business model depends on further small-town media collapsing, which would be guaranteed by delaying this legislation?
8️⃣ This question from @SenHarder is just stunning. Government lead on bill asks @JeffElgie, CEO of a leading Canadian independent media company who just warned that they’ve stopped hiring due to fears *from* Bill C-18, if he isn't actually happy to see local news collapse. 4/4 pic.twitter.com/i2AdKkyjWi
— Michael Geist (@mgeist) May 30, 2023
The question came moments after Elgie informed the committee that should Google and Facebook block news as a result of the bill, his entire business would shut down. In fact, Elgie noted that his organization has stopped hiring due to fears about the implications of the bill. Yet as with Bill C-11, good faith criticism and concerns are treated by the government as hostile opposition to be smeared.
As for the remainder of the hearing, the panel provided confirmation of the myriad of concerns with the bill:
- The Globe and Mail’s Phillip Crawley warned against the intrusion of the CRTC into the news business, calling it a “threat to the independence of media.”
- Jesse Brown of Canadaland highlighted the trust deficit with news organizations and the risks that this could exacerbated by the bill.
- Both the Globe and Mail and Village Media said they paid Facebook to surface their content, surely an obvious rebuttal of the value that flows from free links and the absurdity of claiming that such content posted by publishers anxious for visibility requires further compensation
- Virtually everyone admitted that Facebook and Google blocking news sharing would have a devastating effect, with the services accounting for sizable portions of traffic (70% for Le Devoir, 50% in the case of Village Media, 30% search for the Globe). Elgie said Village Media would not survive blocking from both Google and Facebook, while the Globe said it would cost millions of dollars.
- News Media Canada wants the bill passed by the summer, though it also wants amendments. It seems unlikely both are possible.
The end result is a bill that even supporters admit has serious flaws that could spark a reaction that results in a massive loss for Canadian media with lost links and lost deals. That the government is now open to criticize even local media organizations if they dare to question the bill highlights the paucity of answers to what is likely to become mounting criticism should the bill pass in its current form and lead to less access to news for Canadians and less revenues for Canadian news organizations.