News Media Canada (NMC), the lobby group representing the major newspaper publishers in Canada, released a new report yesterday calling for the creation of a government digital media regulatory agency that would have the power to establish mandated payments for linking to news articles, establish what content is prioritized on social media sites, require companies to disclose algorithmic changes, hand over moderation control of content on news stories to the publishers, and potentially issue fines in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has made “get money from web giants” his top legislative priority and has expressed support for mandated licensing for links.
The report, which inaccurately describes the ill-advised Australian approach to licensing links to news articles, is notable for many of the things it does not say. For example, one could easily read the 41 page report and not realize that companies such as Google and Facebook do not publish full versions of news articles without a licence. Indeed, rather than “taking” content, links to news articles are posted by their users, which then send interested readers back to the original source. In fact, the media companies themselves are typically responsible for posting their own articles and granting a licence for their use.
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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who says his top legislative priority is to “get money from web giants”, has discussed creating a new mandated licence for social media linking to news articles. Guilbeault calls the practice “immoral” and envisions using the Copyright Board of Canada to create a tariff for linking to news articles accompanied by new government powers to levy penalties for failure to comply. Last week, I looked at a single Toronto Star article to see its engagement on Facebook. Using the CrowdTangle Chrome extension, I found that virtually all public engagement with the article came from a Facebook post that the Toronto Star posted itself.
Today’s post expands on that approach by examining a larger group of articles all taken from single day. This post looks at 36 original articles posted to the Star’s website on the morning of October 14, 2020. The day was selected at random and while most Facebook posts take place within the first 24 hours, I waited five days before examining the social media engagement with the articles to give time for potential posts and shares. The Star’s website changes throughout the day, so recreating the day’s paper is difficult. Instead, I endeavoured to include all new Toronto Star-originated articles that had been posted over the prior 20 hours (thereby including articles posted on both October 13th and the morning of the 14th). Articles from wire news services (which is the majority of foreign news stories, sports stories, and some national stories) were excluded as they are licensed by the Star and can be found from many sources online.
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In recent months, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has emerged as the de facto digital policy lead minister in Canada with Navdeep Bains largely silent on the race to regulate everything from online linking to how Canadian content is promoted on digital streaming services. New legislation is still forthcoming, but recent comments to industry town halls and press reports provide a good sense of what Guilbeault has in mind. In short, it appears the government will establish an extensive regulatory structure for digital services with registration or licensing requirements and mandated payments for a host of online activities. The amounts payable will be established through hearings at the CRTC and the Copyright Board of Canada. The government would retain the power to fine companies that fail to comply with the payment requirements and use a policy direction to the CRTC to make its policy intentions clear.
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Last week, I wrote about the need for the Canadian government to reboot its digital agenda, arguing that less than 12 months after the 2019 national election, the policy agenda had gone off the rails with a reversal on affordable telecom services, delays in broadband support and privacy reform, as well as plans for extensive online regulation. The Speech from the Throne, which sets out the government’s agenda, suggests that rather than rebooting the digital agenda, the government has largely deleted it altogether.
The speech was the longest throne speech since the Liberal election in 2015, yet there was apparently no time to reference privacy reform, intellectual property, wireless, or innovation (innovative appears once). Instead, beyond catching up on unfulfilled promises on rural broadband and promising action on online hate, the government’s digital agenda is – as Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said last week – now distilled primarily down to “get money from web giants.” That isn’t a digital agenda, it’s anti-digital agenda, with technology companies cast as both a foreign enemy to be regulated and an ATM for free cash to fund pet projects in the cultural sector.
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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault continued his media tour in support of link taxes and Internet content regulation yesterday with interviews in the Toronto Star and Radio-Canada. The Toronto Star compares technology companies to polluters, doubles down on calling social media linking to news articles without a licence “immoral”, questions why Facebook has said it will stop news sharing in Australia with mandated licensing (“I’m like, really guys”), and raises the possibility of using copyright to require payments for linking. In the Radio-Canada interview, he admits that Netflix already invests in Canada (CRTC chair Ian Scott says it is the biggest single contributor to film and television production in Canada) but that he wants regulation to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to support francophone, native, and minority community productions.
I’ve written extensively on why the claim that linking without a licence is immoral is wrong, why Facebook is right to push back against link licensing, and how Canadian film and television production is enjoying record success because of international streaming services, not in spite of them. But there is one line in the Radio-Canada that particularly caught my attention. When asked about the timing of a bill to mandate online Cancon, Guilbeault acknowledges that “obviously I am not the only minister [responsible] for the bill.”
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