Canadian Heritage Minister Goes Rogue: Pushes For Link Tax

Canadian Heritage Minister, Steven Guilbeault, is questioning his own government and pushing for policies that move into the direction of a Canadian link tax.

It’s one of the most self-destructive policies ever envisioned in the copyright debate: the link tax. Countries that have ignored expert advice and common sense have immediately regretted it. While such a concept effectively throws common sense out the window, some corporate interests think that if the whole world implements it, then magically, all of their problems would be solved. This in spite of how catastrophic things would get in the tech sector.

For context, a link tax policy is the idea that if someone links to something, they must pay a fee for the privilege of linking to that source. Linking, of course, is a big reason why the Internet is called the World Wide Web. One site links to another and that site, in turn, links to other sources and those sites link to each other to form a giant web of interconnectedness. Everyone, in turn, benefits from sources linking to each other – each source bringing something new to the table. In exchange, information sources become more credible.

While this system has benefited the Internet at large pretty much since its inception, big publishers who lack that knowledge background have come to the wild theory that linking is somehow stealing. Nothing about that makes any sense, but that’s how some people really think. So, in an effort to break down one of the key design features of the Internet, the proposal is that people who link need to pay a tax. If we, for instance, reference a source, then, under the link tax scheme, I suddenly owe that source money. This is because I have somehow magically used that sources material and must pay for the privilege for doing so.

Many rightly point out that valuable traffic goes to that source, but that doesn’t matter to those pushing for this senseless approach. They just slap the “theft” label and move on.

One of the big targets of these proposals is news aggregators. A big example is Google News. The scheme is legally being pushed in Europe where French regulators recently ruled that Google must link to French news sources and, in turn, must pay the link tax retroactively. This is because Google simply responded in the most logical manner possible: simply refuse to link to French sources. Many are speculating that Google might pull out of the countries that forces this change simply because publishers depend more on Google then Google depends on publishers. In short, it drives business and investment outside of the country.

For its part, the Canadian government has been more focused on investment dollars in the sector. This especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, big Canadian publishers are pushing for the link tax instead. The Canadian government actually caught a whiff of common sense and has been hesitant on implementing such a disastrous experiment.

Now, more recently, it seems that the Canadian Heritage Minister is going off the deep end and is trying to make pushes towards a Canadian link tax law. From Michael Geist:

Last week, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault called into question his own government’s policies on supporting news media, suggesting that those programs should be replaced by copyright rules that would open the door to payments from internet companies such as Google and Facebook. Mr. Guilbeault indicated that a legislative package was being prepared for the fall that would include new powers for Canada’s communications regulator and what are commonly referred to as Netflix taxes and internet linking taxes.

More problematic is the prospect of mandated payments from online streaming services to support Canadian film and television productions (often referred to as a Netflix tax), since industry data confirms that the Canadian film and television production sector has enjoyed record investment. Last year spending on Canadian content productions grew faster than for foreign-based productions filmed in Canada. With the entire sector hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, this may not be the time for measures that could result in less investment and employment.

It is Mr. Guilbeault’s plans for a link tax that should spark the most concern, however. The government has long promoted its policies designed to support the Canadian media sector, including direct funding for local journalism as well as labour and subscription tax credits. The taxpayer cost runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars, but is justified on the grounds that journalism is an essential service that requires public support.

Yet Mr. Guilbeault now says that government should not be funding media, characterizing the policies as short term measures aimed at mitigating a media emergency. Instead, Mr. Guilbeault supports a controversial copyright reform measure that would establish a news publisher’s right to demand payment for services that link to their content.

This payment – effectively a tax on linking – raises a host of concerns, not the least of which is that the proposal was not recommended by the government’s own copyright review last year. Copyright reform in Canada is always complicated, particularly given that responsibility for it is shared with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, but delving into reforms that sparked protests in Europe could be politically risky for a minority government.

Geist went on to point out many of the examples of what happens when a link tax is implemented that we laid out above.

One thing to note is that it always seems to be the Heritage Minister that pushes some of the worst policies when it comes to copyright and digital rights. During the Chrétien and Martin Liberal governments, the ministry pushed for the destructive mass file-sharing lawsuits. Fortunately, those disastrous proposals were thwarted. During the Harper Conservative government, the ministry pushed for the mass file-sharing lawsuits as well as the anti-circumvention and the failed three strikes law. So, the ministry went from bad to worse. Fortunately, a lot of the worst ideas wound up being scrapped with only the anti-innovation anti-circumvention laws making it into the law books.

Now, with the Trudeau government, the Heritage ministry is pushing for mass Internet censorship and the disastrous link tax laws. In short, it seems that whenever big multinational foreign corporations tell the Canadian Heritage Ministry to jump, the ministry asks, “how high?”

With the Ministry having such a long history of being Canada’s biggest threat to innovation, creativity, and digital rights, this latest move shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is because it seems to follow along with a long-standing unnofficial tradition of pushing some of the worst thought out legal proposals ever constructed. Up to now, I have never seen this pattern breaking with all the Canadian governments I’ve ever got to cover. I’d like to be shown how the ministry has been beneficial to digital rights, but, so far, I’ve personally never seen it in my entire career outside of the YouTube remix exception. Even then, that was mixed in with anti-circumvention that simply overrides that.

Probably the only positive in all of this is that the current Canadian government is in a minority situation. COVID-19 has slowed the government down a lot as well. So, it’s possible that this latest proposal will, at best, die on the order paper like a lot of other disastrous copyright proposals. Hopefully, the Link Tax will be like Matt Damon while the election would be Jimmy Kimmel. We apologize to the link tax, we’ve run out of time for that in this parliamentary session.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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