thumb-2023-06-013-canada-united-states-online-news-act This article is more than 1 year old

Canadian News Websites Will Soon Be Blocked in Canada. But American News Outlets Will Still Be Available.

Canada’s online news blackout won’t impact foreign news outlets that cover stories about Canada or Canadian politics

Internet users in Canada will soon be blocked from accessing Canadian news websites on Facebook and Google in response to a controversial new law — but a quirk in the letter of the law means the online news blackout won’t apply to foreign news outlets covering stories about Canada or Canadian politics.

The federal government’s recently passed Bill C-18, the “Online News Act,” requires social media platforms and search engine companies to negotiate multi-million dollar deals with Canadian news organizations as compensation for displaying hyperlinks to news websites.

In response to the Online News Act, both Meta and Google – the only two companies that would likely be impacted by the law – have announced they will simply block hyperlinks to the websites of Canadian news organizations instead.

The law includes nothing to actually force tech companies to carry Canadian news. During committee hearings, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez assured Senators Meta and Google would not block news as they would face a “reputational impact.”

While Canadians will no longer see news produced locally by Canadian journalists, they will still be able to access news online. In all practical terms, the change effectively only means Canadian social media and search engine users will see news produced in Canada replaced by news produced outside of Canada.

In a statement to PressProgress, Google confirmed it is only removing links to Canadian news organizations as defined under the law, meaning Canadian news sources like CBC News and the Canadian Press would be removed but American news sources like the New York Times and Fox News would remain.

“Canadian news organizations affected by our product changes will be determined based on the scope of the law and the implementing regulations,” a Google spokesperson told PressProgress.

“Bill C-18 sets out criteria for ‘eligible news businesses’, which will be interpreted and applied by the CRTC, and radically changes the legal framework under which we currently link to those ‘eligible news businesses’ in our products.”

More foreign news and less Canadian news would be a perverse effect of the Online News Act. Over the last century, Canadian cultural policy has historically concerned itself with protecting Canadian culture and national interests from foreign influences.

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Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-Commerce Law, says this outcome is “entirely predictable” and shows why the law, which was passed by the Liberal minority government with support from the Bloc Québécois, NDP and Greens, is “deeply flawed.”

“I’m not surprised by the Google interpretation of the law,” Geist told PressProgress. “The effects will be devastating for Canadian media, who will disappear. In their place will be foreign outlets and lower-quality outlets that do not qualify as eligible news businesses under the law.”

Geist says the government would have been better off simply taxing tech companies and using the revenue to fund programs for journalism. Instead, the law “mandated payments for links” which created a structure that “almost invariably leads to this response.”

“The crazy thing is that it would appear Google is willing to pay. They’re just not willing to pay for links with unlimited liability,” Geist added.

Geist says the government should have listened to the feedback it received during committee hearings instead of industry lobby groups who “insisted this was all a bluff.”

“It is not a well-crafted law and the committee hearings were not designed to improve it given that the government MPs tried to limit witnesses and cut off debate,” Geist said. “It’s a devastating own-goal that has left Pablo Rodriguez flailing for a response and looking increasingly desperate.”

It remains unclear if international news organizations would also be exempt from Meta’s decision to “end news availability” on Facebook or Instagram.

Meta did not respond to requests for comment from PressProgress seeking to clarify whether it plans to remove all news content in Canada or only links to Canadian news organizations. In a statement last month, Meta said it was conducting tests to “limit some users and publishers from viewing or sharing some news content in Canada.”

Meta has argued the law is “fundamentally flawed legislation that ignores the realities of how our platforms work,” echoing Google’s view that the law effectively “breaks the way the web and search engines work.”

The Online News Act is modelled after an Australian law spearheaded by lobbyists from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. That law was widely criticized as an attempt to suppress digital news competitors and entrench Murdoch’s media monopoly.

It’s estimated Australia’s bargaining code has disproportionately benefited the two biggest corporate media conglomerates in the country.

Canada’s Online News Act was spearheaded and pushed by News Media Canada, a lobby group that represents Postmedia, TorStar and other legacy media companies.

American news outlets with significant audiences in Canada themselves appear unsure of how the new law might impact their news content or ability to connect with Canadian audiences.

“We are currently reviewing the law and will monitor its impact,” New York Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha told PressProgress, while CNN Worldwide spokesperson Emily Kuhn said CNN is “monitoring this and looking into this more.”

Fox News Media, which is owned by Murdoch, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from PressProgress about how Canada’s Online News Act will impact its business plans or Canadian coverage.

Tucker Carlson (Fox News)

The removal of Canadian news content will have an impact on CBC’s ability to fulfill its mandate in online spaces, particularly CBC News’ ability to connect with audiences in underserved communities.

“It would be unfortunate if the digital platforms used their dominance to deny Canadians access to news and information,” CBC spokesperson Leon Mar told PressProgress. “We all depend on an open Internet.”

One of the main reasons for originally establishing the public broadcaster was a recognition that “private enterprise” was incapable of providing quality content in communities outside large cities or counter the influence of American news and entertainment broadcasts.

Paris Marx, a Canadian technology writer, says it’s important to be equally critical of the government and tech companies in this situation because the law “financially ties our media organizations to major tech platforms like Google and Facebook.”

“If we were thinking bigger, we could also look at strengthening the CBC with more funding focused on local and investigative reporting,” Marx said, adding that the government should be pursuing “public alternatives and crafting regulations that place greater responsibilities on the tech companies that do operate here so they better serve the public instead of just extracting huge revenues that flow back to the United States.”

“The government could also be challenging the idea that our digital lives need to take place on a small number of US-based tech platforms.”


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Luke LeBrun
Luke LeBrun is the Editor of PressProgress. His reporting focuses on the federal political scene, right-wing politics as well as issues in technology, media and culture.

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