Last week, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez introduced Bill C-18 – the Online News Act – the second of three planned Internet regulation bills. There is much to unpack about the provisions in the bill including the enormous power granted to the CRTC, the extensive scope of the bill that could cover tweets or LinkedIn posts, the provision that encourages the Internet platforms to dictate how Canadian media organizations spend the money at issue, and the principle that news organizations should be compensated by some entities not only for the use of their work but even for links that refer traffic back to them.
Sue Gardner is the Max Bell School of Public Policy McConnell Professor of Practice for 2021-2022. A journalist who went on to head CBC.ca and later the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia), she is the only Canadian, and the first woman, to have run a global top-5 internet site. She joins the Law Bytes podcast for a conversation about journalism, the Internet platforms, and Bill C-18.
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Bill S-225, Senator Claude Carignan’s copyright bill, would create a new compensation scheme for media organizations by establishing a new collective rights system for the use of news articles on digital platforms. It may not become law, but it has sparked considerable discussion within the Senate on the issue of media and Internet platforms. In fact, while the digital policy world was focused on Bill C-10, last month the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications held hearings on the bill with a wide range of witnesses that included News Media Canada, Facebook and Google. I was invited to appear in their last hearing of the session alongside Jamie Irving from News Media Canada and Kevin Chan from Facebook. This week’s Law Bytes podcast episode goes inside the virtual committee hearing room with my opening statement and exchanges with several Senators.
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Canadian media organizations face difficult challenges in an age of virtually unlimited Internet competition, a dramatic shift toward digital advertising, and an unprecedented global economic and health crisis. That has led media groups to urge the federal government to “take on” Google and Facebook by requiring them to fund local media. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has thus far declined to do so. That may spark criticism in some quarters but claims that government-mandated payments from Internet companies will solve the sector’s ills are unconvincing.
My Financial Post op-ed notes that everyone agrees the media sector is more competitive than ever. News organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post, digital media companies like The Athletic and The Logic, podcasters competing with mainstream media audio offerings and the CBC’s continued digital expansion all offer compelling and competitive news alternatives. This breadth of choice for Canadian news consumers isn’t the fault of Google or Facebook. It is a reflection of low barriers to market entry and a proliferation of services that often do a better job than many established media companies of serving specialized content.
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The Canadian government announced plans last spring in Budget 2018 to support local journalism with a $50 million commitment over five years. It indicated that the money would be allocated by independent, non-governmental organizations to provide support in under-served communities. Last week, the federal economic update included several additional measures to support the media sector, including the prospect of charitable donations to non-profit journalism organizations, a refundable tax credit to support labour costs for news organizations, and a non-refundable tax credit for Canadians that subscribe to Canadian digital news media. While the new funding has attracted considerable commentary (my take here on why there are problems but the proposal is better than Internet taxes or other cross-subsidization models), somewhat overshadowed was an update on the initial $50 million commitment.
The update indicates that the money will be invested in “open source” news content that will be available under a Creative Commons licence:
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Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly does not plan to release her digital culture policy plan until September, but the pressure to address the financial challenges faced by media organizations increased last week with the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage report (the same report that recommended an Internet tax that was swiftly rejected by Prime Minister Trudeau) and a proposal from News Media Canada that seeks hundreds of millions in annual government support. The recommendations don’t end there: copyright reform, tax changes, and amendments to government advertising policies are all part of the proposals to provide support to Canadian media organizations.
Andrew Coyne’s must-read column persuasively argues against a media bailout, noting the dangers of permanent government funding of an otherwise independent media. He rightly argues that if funding is established, it isn’t going away as government will be reluctant to allow funded media organizations to fail. Further, Ken Whyte, former editor-in-chief of the National Post, openly acknowledges in a Twitter stream the constraints that come from criticizing government when funding or regulation is at stake.
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