Amid a backdrop of diminishing trust and declining revenue for Canada’s legacy media. Bill C-18, also known as the Online News Act, intends to save those major media organizations by compelling social media companies to “pay their fair share” to the failing corporate press. The bill will do the opposite of what it intends to accomplish. It will corrode the freedom of the press in this country.
In some cases, local media companies have already seen a 25 per cent decline in viewers since Meta blocked Canadian news in response to the bill at the beginning of August.
One of the main arguments in favour of Bill C-18 is that tech companies are stealing content from news outlets and using it without paying for the content. However, this argument needs to consider the give-and-take relationship between news organizations and social media platforms. News outlets have willingly used social media as a free way to get more eyes to their websites, using social media much like they used to rely on newsboys to deliver newspapers. These platforms help share news content, often sending readers back to news websites. Rather than theft, it’s more like a mutually beneficial partnership.
Proponents of the bill will argue that the Online News Act will give legacy media the ability to be on a level playing field with independent media online, to make sure these companies get their “fair share.” Aside from being a phrase straight out of an Ayn Rand novel, using the power of the state to regulate the industry in favour of these companies gives a clear advantage to the corporate press and isn’t exactly an even playing field.
In a CBC article, Paul MacNeill of Island Press Limited in Prince Edward Island and Jeff Elgie, CEO of Ontario’s Village Media spoke about the bill’s effect on their companies. MacNeil said web traffic to his site is “down by around a quarter since the start of the Meta block.” Elgie said traffic to his site had declined by around 15 per cent.
Media outlets in Canada have already received bailouts and financial support, a form of government assistance to keep these major news outlets alive. As the government passes legislation that gives even more financial perks to these companies, it raises red flags about conflicts of interest. The news media’s job is to report on the government objectively and hold it accountable. Any financial incentives from the government put into question the media’s ability to remain independent from the state.
Another hopefully unintended adverse effect of this proposed legislation is that Bill C-18 could discourage new journalists from entering the market and limit the potential for fresh and creative approaches to journalism. This could have a negative, long-term impact on the variety and quality of news available to Canadians.
By limiting news visibility on social media only to companies these web giants are willing to make deals with, successful journalism will be defined solely by what those major companies allow into their organizations. This will exasperate the already existing media echo chambers into a sort of monopoly in the industry.
Kate Stollar, News Director at Durham Radio News said “Not only does this bill hamper our ability to reach our audience it harms the community we serve.” Stollar said the bill will delay the company’s plans to expand its audience to new markets, making it difficult to grow without the use of social media.”
According to Reuters, an independent data analytics firm, Similarweb, reported very little change in traffic to Facebook after Meta blocked news links from their site. Another firm, Data.ai, said its data was “not showing any meaningful change to the usage of Meta in Canada in August.” This bill is already proving not to have much, if any, leverage against big tech companies while managing to prevent news organizations from getting views from social media to their sites.
Although the intentions behind Bill C-18, the Online News Act, might be honest, it puts the future of Canadian journalism into question. Painting tech companies as the bad guys who steal from news outlets oversimplifies a much more complex issue. Incentives for media companies raising concerns about conflicts of interest coupled with the chilling effect the bill will have on independent media, the proposed legislation is far from a perfect solution.
If this bill is genuinely meant to help Canadian media companies, it should be amended to allow independent and local media to opt out of the legislation. If companies can choose whether or not to enter into negotiations with these tech giants, the little guy might get out unscathed and avoid being crushed by the helping hand of the state as it tries to save Canada’s multi-million dollar media companies.
Instead of using tech companies as a scapegoat, media companies should focus on regaining the Canadian public’s trust and address why news consumers are watching less and less of their content. Having the government regulate the market jeopardizes the very nature of a free press.