Heritage Minister tables bill to make digital platforms pay news organizations

Google and Meta are two of the leading contenders

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Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez, has introduced Bill C-18, also known as the Online News Act, to ensure digital platforms pay Canadian news outlets for using their work.

At a press conference Tuesday, Rodriguez said the way people access news has changed with preference going to digital platforms and social media. The shift results in advertising dollars moving away from the news industry and towards platforms that gatekeep the news.

Online ad revenues in 2020 totalled $9.7 billion, and Google and Facebook shared 80 percent of these revenues.

“The news sector in Canada is in crisis, and this contributes to the heightened public mistrust and the rise of harmful disinformation in our society,” Rodriguez said.

The bargaining process

If passed, the legislation will require platforms to make deals with news organizations to share content. These deals will include several criteria, including compensating organizations fairly, respecting journalistic independence, and investing in diverse news outlets.

Newspapers and magazines, public and private broadcasters, and non-Canadian news businesses that meet the criteria can take part in the bargaining process.

“This is fundamentally fairer for Canadian news media, which will be able to negotiate on more equal terms with the tech giants,” a press release following Rodriguez’s announcement states.

Bargaining between the platform and the news business is mandatory unless they meet a list of exemptions. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will be the regulator.

News organizations will receive support if a deal can’t be reached.

The need for transparency

To make the process transparent, Rodriguez said platforms that meet the criteria for payment, all exemptions granted, and names of participating news outlets will be made public. An annual report outlining the value of the deals made will also be published.

Regulatory tools will include a code of conduct to ensure fairness and an undue preference provision. The latter will ensure platforms that hold power in the market don’t engage in practices that negatively impact policy, organizations, or how Canadians receive news.

Some Canadian publishers have welcomed the news with open arms. News Media Canada, which represents 500 print and digital titles across Canada, says the bill was needed.

“Trusted information is needed more today than ever before, and real news reported by real journalists costs real money,” Jamie Irving, chair of News Media Canada, said. “This legislation levels the playing field and gives Canada’s news publishers a fair shot and doesn’t require additional taxpayer funds.”

What Australia taught Canada

News access was a problem in the last country that introduced similar legislation. Early last year, Australia passed an act forcing large digital platforms, like Google and Facebook, to pay publishers for the news accessed on those platforms.

Soon afterwards, however, Facebook blocked Australians from accessing news on the platform. At the time, former Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said the actions wouldn’t deter Ottawa from continuing its pledge to pass a similar law in Canada.

Rodriguez said the model is similar to what was seen in Australia and includes feedback from stakeholders.

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