The study into the Online News Act continues this week as the government and Bill C-18 supporters continue to insist that the bill does not involve payment for links. These claims are deceptive and plainly wrong from even a cursory reading of the bill. Simply put, there is no bigger concern with this bill. This post explains why link payments are in, why the government knows they are in, and why the approach creates serious risks to the free flow of information online and freedom of expression in Canada.
Payments for Links: “The Whole Purpose of Why We’re Here”
First, the statute and comments related to the bill leave no doubt that payment for links is absolutely part of the legislative plan. Section 2(2) of the bill defines making news content available as follows:
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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.
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As noted in yesterday’s post, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez appeared before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage last Friday for one hour and walked away with a serious credibility problem. Friday’s hearing focused on two issues – the Laith Marouf/CMAC issue of government funding for an anti-semite and Bill C-18 – and Rodriguez faced credibility questions on both. While yesterday’s post focused on his responses to questions about Canadian Heritage funding for CMAC/Marouf, today’s addresses his misleading statements on the bill.
I’ve written extensively about some of the problems with Bill C-18. These include process concerns involving blocking dozens of witnesses from appearing before committee, benefit concerns based on Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that the big winners are Bell, Rogers and the CBC, as well as substantive concerns that include the risks to the free flow of information online, risks of increased misinformation, and government intervention in an area that could undermine an independent press. But Rodriguez’s appearance last week raised new concerns about the government using misleading data and apparently having given little thought or study to the full implications of the bill.
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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.
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