Canada needs to protect “weakening news outlets”

Last week, Independent Senator Colin Deacon delivered a speech on the subject of Bill C-18, The Online News Act, in the Senate chamber. The full speech has been published by Policy Magazine. Below is an abbreviated version of his remarks.

Honourable Senators, the debate around Bill C-18, The Online News Act, pivoted on February 22. That day, Google confirmed that they were conducting tests to “limit the visibility of Canadian and international news to varying degrees.”

In response to questions about its actions, Google assured us that less than 4 percent of Canadian users will be impacted by this random testing. Given that an estimated 92 percent of Canadians use Google and the average user conducts three to four searches a day, Google’s assurance — or threat — implies that over 1 million Canadians have or will have reduced access to Canadian news several times per day for the duration of this test. Which million Canadians, I wonder.

I can’t figure out why Google did this. Second reading debate had just begun. Concern about the effectiveness of this legislation was raised in the earliest speechesRather than constructively contributing to the debate, Google fired a shot across the bow of Canada’s legislative process and, I would argue, our sovereignty. If this is how Google negotiates with a G7 country, I can only imagine how they negotiate with our diminishing and steadily weakening news outlets.

At the very least, Google just demonstrated that under Canada’s existing legislation and regulations it is free to manipulate what Canadians see when they use Google to access information and news. But, of course, they are. That’s true for all algorithm-based services.

Google just showcased why a piecemeal approach to preventing harm and creating opportunity in the digital era is not sufficient. Google showcased why a whole-of-government approach is urgently needed if Canadians are to thrive in the digital era. Our structural legislation, like privacy and competition law, and countless regulations and policies across government were designed in and for the analogue world. They are no longer fit for purpose as the world races ahead in the digital era.

In the absence of these structural changes, Bill C-18 is an imperfect solution, but it may help in the short- to-medium term, akin to providing a pair of crutches to someone who has a broken leg. The job is not done until the leg is reset in a cast and can heal.

I’m leaning towards supporting Bill C-18 as a useful short-term measure that may slow the collapse and, perhaps, even plateau the viability of news media in Canada, but I’m not convinced that it offers anything close to a permanent solution where journalism can thrive once again.

Just over a year ago, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada — ISED — released a report summarizing the strategies and tactics that are increasingly utilized by data-intensive tech platforms in order to obtain and maintain dominance. It’s called Study of Competition Issues in Data-Driven Markets in Canada.

Specifically, the authors examined how data-intensive tech platforms obtain, control and then leverage data to increase profits and protect against competition. The report took a case-study approach to consider whether specific digital business behaviours are sufficiently captured under Canada’s Competition Act.

The short answer was, “No, they are not.” That is why the Budget 2022 commitment to modernize the Competition Act is so important, as is ISED’s ongoing public consultation on competition policy reform.

In retrospect, it is easy to see why in 2020 the Australian government directed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC, to investigate markets affected by the supply of digital platform services and, importantly, required the ACCC to report back every six months for the next three years. They are taking this issue very seriously.

The Australian Digital Platforms Inquiry found that Google’s and Facebook’s market dominance had distorted the ability of news businesses to compete, and that was the premise of building Australia’s code.

Australia’s strategic use of the ACCC — their version of our Competition Bureau — is a great lesson for Canada.

I also wondered how Bill C-18 might impact the scrappy online news outlets that have been growing. What pro- or anti-competitive effects might Bill C-18 have on those news outlets that have carved out economically viable models, despite the odds?

I looked at allNovaScotia, a subscription-based online business and political news outlet with a hard paywall. That means they do not share any of their information on social media. They’ve grown over 20 years and now operate in four provinces. Bill C-18 will not help them and it could bring them harm, because none of their news stories are shared beyond their subscribers.

How about BetaKit or The Logic? Different risks and realities face these two entities, but both have been growing as traditional news outlets have been shrinking. There are many lessons to be learned here. How about Canadaland with its podcast-only format?

Understanding how Bill C-18 will affect these innovative, growing online news outlets will, in my opinion, be crucial to the committee’s study. My questions include the following: What are the unintended consequences of Bill C-18 as it related to these innovators? Does the government commit to extend the journalism labour tax credits, even with the passage of Bill C-18? Are the qualifying criteria for Bill C-18 and the journalism labour tax credits sufficiently inclusive to encourage innovative news outlets that serve a diversity of communities?

As the committee does its work, I ask members to remember how Google chose to negotiate with a G7 country. Their actions suggest that you might want to understand whether witnesses before the committee are constrained because they are under a confidentiality agreement, conflicted because they have already negotiated a deal or are testifying under pressure or fear that their posts or information will be throttled up or down based upon their testimony.

Whether Bill C-18 is passed in its current or amended form, I continue to wonder if it is capable of moving fast enough to save Canada’s remaining legacy news outlets. The bill’s timeline would still enable digital platforms to slow walk the process for eight months after coming into force. I do wonder whether any resulting funds will actually go to support journalists and journalism.

Colleagues, the Washington Post’s simple refrain that “Democracy Dies in Darkness” needs to be top of mind in the examination of Bill C-18. The catastrophic collapse of journalism and print media is undermining access to accurate information and insights in Canada.

That is the problem: Financially unsustainable media ultimately puts our democracy at risk.

Is Bill C-18 at least part of an appropriate response? I think so. Will Bill C-18 help to minimize future harm while we search for more sustainable solutions? I hope so.