Bill C-18: Media Increasingly Admit That the News Links Block Might Not Be a Bluff

The Canadian government in pushing Bill C-18 insists that news links blocks is just a bluff. Publishers, however, don’t think so.

For half a year, the Canadian government has dismissed valid warnings that Google and Facebook could opt to simply block news links altogether. This in response to Bill c-18, Canada’s link tax legislation. Facebook warned clear back in October that Bill C-18 could mean that they will block news links altogether. That warning was made as a way of giving advance warning to Canadians using the platform. The warning was renewed in December as the platform was moving to cut off deals made with US publishers.

In response, the Canadian government insisted that it was all just a big bluff. The Heritage Ministry has repeatedly said that this was all just a big intimidation tactic, even going so far as to call it an effort to strong arm the government. However, the evidence never backed up the Canadian government. There have been massive rounds of layoffs across the tech sector as advertisers pull back in anticipation of a recession. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, laid off 13% of its workforce.

What’s more, platforms are increasingly moving away from news links and into more lucrative types of content such as video sharing. One stark statistic was how 4 in every 1,000 posts in Facebooks main feed featured a news link. So, platforms are increasingly moving away from news altogether. Between a decrease in revenue and a decrease in news as a prominent fixture in the business model, the response to simply not bother paying for news links is as obvious as the sky while outside.

Of course, as the conventional wisdom goes, publishers need platforms more than platforms need publishers. Publishers have been incredibly reliant on the likes of Facebook and Google for their source of eyeballs. Platforms help make news publishers viable in the first place. So, while the move to just not allow news links altogether would hardly hurt the platforms, the move would be devastating for publishers, likely seeing a huge source of traffic suddenly cut off. For publishers already on the brink, the move would easily be what sends the outlet over the edge and into bankruptcy.

So, with a link tax moving forward, it’s very likely a method of speeding up the process more than anything else. Why wait several years to gradually phase out news links when you can just leave nothing to the imagination and shut it down immediately? Still, the Canadian government, with its head typically in the sand, insisted that all of this is just a bluff and that platforms are wholly dependent on news links and blocking news is something they would never do. So, those warnings simply went ignored.

More recently, those warnings were starting to turn into action. Back in February, in an effort to make sure all options were on the table, Google began testing the concept of blocking news links altogether. This would mean that should Google actually follow through on a product decision, they could move quickly to carry out that decision. Facebook, earlier this month, said that it would block news links should Bill C-18 not be amended. Probably the only ones surprised by the move was the Canadian government who ultimately took this as simply strong arm negotiating tactics – comments that were on full display at the Google hearing where MPs turned it into a colossal waste of time.

Of course, anyone who has any sense of how the internet works are, at minimum, rolling their eyes at the Canadian government and remarking at how ridiculous the government is looking these days. The only people who seem to think that this is is all a big bluff appear to be the media and the government. In all likelihood, they started believing their own lies about Bill C-18, making the well known mistake of getting high of your own supply. The viewpoint has long been an isolated one, exclusive to publishers and the government. Almost everyone else knows that the platforms were giving the government the straight answers all this time – answers that the government refused to listen to.

Now, we are learning that the viewpoint is now even more isolated than ever before. News publishers are increasingly starting to (finally) read the room and realize that maybe the platforms might actually be moving towards blocking news links after all. Those comments have been seen in the Logic (reg-walled, use Trashmail to read). The article incorrectly said that Canadians were “throttled” on Google (they simply didn’t see news links on Google News, they were not “throttled”. Bad reporter, bad.). The article, however, notes that publishers are finally starting to realize that news links might actually be blocked after all:

Not everyone agrees. “I think Facebook and Google determined that Canada is a tipping point that they don’t want to cross, and they’ve decided it’s worth risking a significant reputational hit by blocking news content here in order to show other countries they aren’t bluffing,” as the academic and noted critic of Big Tech Taylor Owen told me recently.

The jury is out on Google, as I’ll explain in a minute. But I definitely don’t think Meta is bluffing this time. After conversations with several well-placed sources in the publishing industry, I think there’s a very good chance that the company will cease distributing Canadian news on its platforms should the legislation pass. Here’s why.

As its corporate name change from Facebook to Meta suggests, in 2023 it is a very different company than it was even circa 2020. That year, in a bid to counter its image as a global vector of democracy-subverting misinformation, the company became journalism’s best friend. It announced US$100 million in support for news outlets during COVID-19, US$25 million of which came from the Facebook Journalism Project, created in 2017. Kevin Chan, then head of public policy for Canada at Facebook, was a ubiquitous presence on panels about the future of news media—themselves often stocked with Facebook-subsidized news outlets.

Three years and one expensive pivot to the ill-defined metaverse later, the company’s appetite for news has clearly slackened. It has ceased using humans to curate its news tab, shuttered its Substack-competing newsletter subscription service and, critically, announced it would stop paying U.S. news publishers for their content to run on Facebook. It also laid off a whack of people working on its various journalism initiatives—some of the 21,000 people the company has laid off since last November.

They have a lot riding on that bet. In a conversation last week, Globe and Mail publisher Philip Crawley outlined the potentially devastating fallout to the news industry were Google to deindex and cease offering Canadian news. “In Canada, the ad industry is built around Google at the moment,” Crawley told me. Not having access to Google search, he added, “would be really damaging for our audience reach.”

For the record, Crawley is another who doesn’t think Meta’s threat is a bluff. But he remains in favour of the bill regardless, though he takes issue with aspects of it. He told me he had “serious concerns about CRTC overreach” embedded in the current iteration of the bill, referring to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the governmental body that would oversee negotiations between news media entities and Big Tech. (I should also note that The Globe has signed deals that see both Google and Meta paying it undisclosed sums in exchange for its content appearing on their platforms. The Logic has signed no such deals.)

If losing Big Tech would be bad for The Globe, arguably the country’s most recognized private news publisher, it would be outright devastating for titles without the paper’s brand recognition and promotional heft. Big Tech may well be a vampire squid sucking the news industry dry of advertising dollars. Nonetheless, this squid is particularly effective at getting the industry’s content in front of eyeballs. Even with that risk, my queries to assorted legacy publishers reveal they remain more or less solidly in favour of C-18.

The author tried insisting that there’s good reason to believe that this was all a big bluff because of what happened in Australia, but that has always been a terrible argument to support the idea that this was all a bluff.

At any rate, it took 6 months and a mountain of evidence to support the idea that all of this wasn’t a bluff, but it seems that some members in the media are finally starting to put two and two together and admit that there might be a problem with their position. The rest of Canada, no doubt, giving the media a collective “DUH!”

This would mean that the only ones staunchly believing this mythical “bluff” scenario is the government. As they move shoulder to the wheel to moving the link tax forward, it is almost ironic that the government could deep six an entire industry by delivering the very legislation they called for. In the likely scenario that news links get blocked on multiple platforms, the traffic would ultimately dry up and cause revenues to dramatically shrink for big publishing. Smaller publishers will end up being collateral damage as many of them will ultimately fold and go out of business.

Everything about this is so incredibly self-inflicted. From the media shooting themselves in the foot by pushing disinformation, (significantly harming their credibility in the process) to the government ignoring all the warning signs, to so much more, everything about this colossal failure was self-inflicted. It’s hard to say if any of these last minute reservations will make an impact in the bills trajectory. After all, there’s no doubt a contingent in the sector that are going to insist that we should all just “have faith” that it will all magically work out in the end (it likely won’t).

Still, it is interesting to know that even the media have started to wake up and smell the smelling salts in all of this. It only took some six months to actually acknowledge the facts in the matter, but progress is progress, right?

(Via @[email protected])

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: