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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Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it plans to stop allowing publishers and users to share news on both Facebook and Instagram in Australia. The decision came after months of public debate and private negotiations on potential payments from the social media giant to news organizations. When the Internet platforms and the news organizations led by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (by the far the largest media organization in Australia) were unable to arrive at a deal, the Australian government and its regulator announced that it would legislate a solution by requiring Google and Facebook to pay publishers for content posted by its users on its site. The Facebook decision to block news sharing on its platforms has been described as a “threat” to the government and democracy, leading to supportive op-eds calling on the Australian government to push back against the company. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has denounced the move, stating “the Canadian government stands with our Australian partners and denounces any form of threats.”
There are many serious concerns about Facebook: it is in federal court in a battle over whether it violated Canadian privacy law, its response to potentially misleading political advertising has been inadequate, it has moved too slowly in removing posts that urge violence, it faces antitrust investigations, it has paid billions in penalties for its conduct, and many simply fear it is too powerful. But it is in the right in this battle over news in Australia and the Canadian government would be wrong to emulate the Australian approach.
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Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault yesterday attempted to walk-back comments from the weekend in which he said regulating news sites “was no big deal.” Guilbeault now says the government does not intend to require licences or registration from “news agencies.” When asked repeatedly how to draw the line between “news agencies” (which is not a term used in the Broadcast and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel report) and other news sources, Guilbeault was unable to provide a clear answer. Despite the lack of specifics, Guilbeault maintains that he still intends to introduce legislation within months.
While the decision to reject mandatory licensing or registration of some news services is a good step, it is nowhere near enough. The BTLR envisions a massive regulatory structure with the CRTC empowered to regulate Internet sites and services worldwide. There are few limits to what is covered: social media services, online streaming services, news aggregators, communications services such as Skype, podcasting sites, app stores, operating systems, and device manufacturers are all somehow considered part of the “system” and potentially subject to regulation and mandated payments.
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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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