Things are not looking too good right now for the distribution of online news in Canada. The Online News Act, or Bill C-18, received royal assent last week. Per a government news release:
"The Online News Act levels the playing field between news businesses and large digital platforms to create greater fairness to ensure sustainability of the news industry. Through a market-based approach, it encourages voluntary commercial agreements between platforms and news businesses with minimal government intervention, as well as crucial safeguards to preserve the independence of the press."
In response, Facebook and Google have said they'll comply by just not having any Canadian news on their platforms, a totally predictable outcome that somehow has all others apoplectic.
The law is well-intended; it is aimed at increasing funding towards news organizations in Canada. I think it's the wrong move.
First, my philosophical objection. If we want to have a free internet, I don't think anyone should have to pay for linking to content hosted elsewhere! The government seems to deny this is what's happening, but that is fundamentally what the law will achieve. The platforms have to make deals with news organizations to cover any form of "making available of news content". In a backgrounder posted online, the government gave more details:
"The Bill does not set a price for creating hyperlinks, nor does it set a cost for clicking on these hyperlinks. The Bill imposes an obligation on dominant digital platforms to negotiate in good faith on all ways that news content is made available to users. This includes reproducing, indexing, aggregating, or ranking the content. This ensures news outlets will be fairly compensated for the full value that the platforms draw from their content."
You can sugercoat it any way you like, they are basically going to have to pay for links if these agreements are drawn up.
Maybe I am too much of a web purist. I have more practical objections, anyway.
For one, the news publishers are supposedly unhappy Google and Facebook get to use their content for free. Well, there are ways to fix that:
- News publishers could set up a hard paywall. Link to their articles all you want, the only way anyone could read them with a hard paywall is to subscribe.
- Webmasters can always block referral traffic from any domain of their choosing, at any time.
- Webmasters can also put
noindexin their site header to keep search engines from indexing them.
But the Canadian news organizations that lobbied the government to enact the Online News Act don't do these, particularly the last two. You won't see them do it, because they benefit from Facebook and Google linking to them! It's a free and substantial source of traffic for them. A quick check on Facebook shows that properties of the involved organizations, such as the National Post (Postmedia) and Toronto Star, are still posting links daily on Facebook. That is some pretty wacky behaviour from people who feel Facebook isn't fairly compensating them for their content! They should be happy, though, that Google and Facebook will stop using their content after all.
The government claims the new law will help maintain an independent press. This is absurd and was clearly not the case even before the law was given royal assent. The news publishers have been lobbying the government, and their journalists are supposed to credibly report on this? Even the many journalists who are skeptical about the Online News Act are in a very uncomfortable position when their employer stands to benefit so handsomely from its existence—which is probably the reason there hasn't been much critical coverage over it. Now that it's the law of the land, are we expecting to have an independent and fair media that depends on money from Big Tech?
Let's imagine everything blows over and the Canadian media industry starts getting some cold, hard cash out of Google and Facebook. I guarantee it will not fix anything. The big news publishers will just take the money, give their executives huge bonuses ("well done everyone, here's a little extra something!") and continue cutting back on actual journalism.
Other folks around the web have had much more to say on the matter than I, and more eloquently:
- Steve Faguy suggests the real issue here is legacy media's business model of selling ads has been taken by digital giants, and they're salty about that. But, he adds, "you don’t have a legally-enforceable right to your business model."
- Michael Geist has tons of great blog posts on the subject, including his most recent one: "A Massive Own-Goal for the Government: Google to Stop News Links in Canada Due to Bill C-18"
- Andrew Coyne writes in The Globe and Mail on the matter of platforms "stealing" news publishers' content: "What [the digital platforms] do is link to it. How does a link work? You click on it, and you are taken to the address embedded in it—that is, to one of our pages. Far from stealing our content or our readers, the platforms have been sending readers our way by the millions, there to read our content and see our ads."
- Ricochet spoke to Senator Paula Simons, a former newspaper journalist, who says "I really feel like this is written by people who have never used the internet".
What about OttawaStart.com?
Of course, I can't say all this without also discussing how these developments can affect me! I am the publisher of OttawaStart.com, a city blog that does a little of everything. Although I don't think it counts under the definitions of the Online News Act, I currently have no idea whether the decisions of Google and Facebook will affect it. It would definitely suck if Google removed OttawaStart.com articles, as typically we come up when people search for Ottawa info and hence get a lot of readers that way. Facebook is not very important these days, as a number of years ago they started de-emphasizing external links on their platform. Whatever happens with this law, I will keep running it because it's really just a hobby anyway.