Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is less than 48 hours old, but the more you examine the bill, the worse it gets. My previous posts unpacked why the general policy is bad for press independence and competition as well as why the bill features a misguided attempt to require payments for links. Yet the bill requires an even deeper look since it goes far beyond “compensating journalists when they use their content” (as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said yesterday in the House of Commons) or even linking to news articles. Rather, the bill requires compensation for facilitating access to news in any way and in any amount.
In doing so, it eviscerates the claim that there is a tangible connection between the requirement to pay for the value of news articles on social media and search platforms (called digital news intermediaries or DNI’s in the bill). Rather, Bill C-18 is a shakedown with requirements to pay for nothing more than listing Canadian media organizations with hyperlinks in a search index, social media post, or possibly even a tweet. At a time when we need the public to access to credible news, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez believes that large Internet companies that engage in the act of facilitating access to news – not copying, not using, not even directly linking – should pay for doing so.
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The Law Bytes podcast took a breather over the holidays and into early January, but there seemingly is no break for digital policy issues. Over the past few weeks, Internet platforms have found themselves squarely in the public eye as company after company – from Shopify to Twitter to Facebook de-platformed former US President Donald Trump in response to the events in Washington earlier this month. Dr. Heidi Tworek of the University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s most prolific thinkers on Internet platform policies. She joins the podcast for a conversation about the role and responsibilities of Internet platforms, proposals for payments in the news sector, and insights what governments should be doing about better communicating with the public about the COVID-19 global pandemic.
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The Broadcasting Act Blunder series yesterday covered claims by Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault that the bill contains significant economic thresholds as a guardrail against over-regulation. As I noted, the bill does no such thing, though the CRTC will be able to establish regulatory exemptions once it conducts extensive hearings on implementing the legislation should it pass (prior posts in the Broadcasting Act Blunder series include Day 1: Why there is no Canadian Content Crisis, Day 2: What the Government Doesn’t Say About Creating a “Level Playing Field”, Day 3: Minister Guilbeault Says Bill C-10 Contains Economic Thresholds That Limit Internet Regulation. It Doesn’t).
Guilbeault also told the House of Commons that news is excluded from his bill:
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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault appeared on The West Block over the weekend in an interview that provides a strong – and disturbing – sense of where the government is headed on Internet regulation. Most problematic was the discussion on compensation from social media companies such as Facebook to news organizations for allowing their users to link to news articles. As I discussed in a post last week examining recent developments in Australia:
Facebook users post many things – photos, videos, personal updates, and links to various content online, including news articles. Those news articles do not appear in full. Rather, they are merely links that send users to the original news site. From Facebook’s perspective, there is enormous value in referring users to media sites, who benefit from advertising revenue from the visits.
Facebook has said that it will block all news sharing on its platform in Australia if the government proceeds with a mandated payment system, noting the limited value of the links and arguing that its referrals that are worth hundreds of millions to the news organizations. If Canada were to pursue the same strategy, Canadian news sites would also likely be blocked and a trade complaint under the USMCA would be a virtual certainty.
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