As “Finding Out” Sets in for Big Media, Heritage Minister Struggles for Answers

Regret may be starting to set in for Canadian outlets supporting the bill. The Heritage Minister seems to be out of answers.

FAFO is a reasonably well known acronym. It means f*** around, Find Out or f*** Around and Find Out. With Bill C-18, Canada’s link tax, the large media outlets were pushing with the former part of the acronym. The platforms responded by saying that they could drop news links altogether, citing great uncertainty with the bill as well as unlimited liabilities for content that has such little impact on the user experience on their platforms. Despite the warnings and evidence backing up the reasoning, supporters of the bill kept insisting that this was all some sort of elaborate bluff and strong arm tactics. This while insisting that, despite the evidence, the platforms depend almost exclusively on news content.

While supporters of the bill have a shared delusion that they are the centre of attention for these platforms, Meta, parent company of Facebook, appears to be carrying through with their response to the threats by the government. Earlier, they announced that they will begin test blocking Canadian news links for 5% of Canadians. This response is consistent with what the platform has been saying all along with this bill. This is compounded by the fact that the government has a long history of refusing to compromise. This was perfectly highlighted with Bill C-11.

Of course, there is a double whammy when it comes to this move that hurts everyone involved. For media outlets that don’t have any deal with the platforms, there is now a very real prospect that their content could get cut off from the platform completely. The consequences is a huge percentage of their traffic could soon be completely choked off. This will cost the media outlets millions. With the precarious nature of a number of these outlets, likely be what finally pushes the outlets over the cliff and onto the rocks of bankruptcy below. Journalists, as a result, will see their jobs disappear as a result.

Then there are media outlets that have managed to ink deals with the platforms. The platforms have already indicated that those deals are now in jeopardy. If news links are dropped completely, that will easily be paired with the platforms pulling out of existing deals. That puts in jeopardy the millions they have no doubt already made off of these “deals”. As a result, more job losses seem inevitable.

Those in the journalism sector have grown increasingly split on these developments. For some, they are finally seeing the situation for what it is: everything going sideways as two of the biggest players helping prop up the legacy media pulling out and leaving the outlets to fend for themselves. For others, there is a growing insistence that they just need to stay strong and hope that the problems will magically resolve themselves. This under the false assumption that news is just too darned important to vanish from the platforms – even though the evidence has long suggested otherwise.

Big media’s front man in all of this, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, gave an interview recently about the latest developments. In the interview, the Minister seemed to sputter and give very few answers. He basically insisted that this was all a big bluff because “they” did the same thing in Australia for about a week, came to their senses, and went along with the scheme anyway.

So, in typical Rodriguez fashion, the interview was yet another disaster. The Minister insisted that his door is always open, but the evidence throughout the debate says otherwise. If anything, Rodriguez has a habit of refusing to listen, his fellow MPs have a habit of blocking news reporters for asking questions, and already has a “my way or the highway” approach to the bills he is pushing.

What’s more, despite what the minister says, there is nothing simple about the bill. When you get into who should qualify as an eligible news organization and who shouldn’t, how much money is expected to come out of the deals, the (lack of) compliance with Canada’s international trade obligations, the compatibility with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, what should go into ensuing transparency reports, the definitions of who counts as intermediaries, and, well, we really could go on, this bill ends up being an incredibly complex piece of legislation with few answers. After all, if even the CRTC, the regulator tapped to administer this bill, can’t even answer some basic questions from a small news website, how in the world is this bill even close to resembling “simple”?

As for Meta, this reaction is quite obvious. When you have a government threatening you all day long with unlimited liability over content that matters little to your business model, the solution is to drop that liability from the balance sheet. If anything, the announcement of this test was obvious. The platform needs a mechanism in place to drop news links altogether. There isn’t actually a magic button that says “block news links” somewhere in Meta headquarters. So, trying to implement a system is going to require some testing to ensure things don’t slip through the cracks.

In the world of coding, what sounds like something simply sometimes (often) isn’t actually as simple when trying to actually implement it. I know this personally when I pulled my hair out trying to figure out how to get the navigation bar to work while designing this site. It took weeks of debugging and trying to make it look right. Even now, there’s one bug I couldn’t solve where it has a fixed position. It’s the only reason why the site is aligned to the left – because the stupid sub menu refused to display properly otherwise no matter what I threw at it (container classes, padding and margin didn’t work). It looks simple and trivial to implement, but I ended up having to borrow some solutions to fix some of the other issues with it.

While I struggled to get a simple menu system implemented, one can only imagine the kind of complications a large platform can run into trying to block specific kinds of content. What is a news link that goes to a news outlet and what is just an innocuous link? How does one deal with link shortening services? How do you determine what is and is not a Canadian news outlet? What system is in place to add news outlets to the list should a new news outlet pop up or switch domains? It would be impressive if a system is implemented perfectly on the first try and there’s going to be problems somewhere along the line. So, testing is the obvious step to implement the system that is reasonably good enough to pass muster when the mechanism fully goes live later.

At any rate, any media organization in their right mind will be looking at this situation and worry. As the prospect of a huge portion of traffic getting cut off looms, the minister has no answers. Only vague promises that things will just magically resolve themselves and that the platforms will just do an about face at some point. When your entire business model is on the line, you need a lot more than magical thinking and vague notions. Unfortunately, the man pushing the bill doesn’t have much more than that.

(Via @Mgeist)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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