Canadian Newspapers Launch Coordinated Anti-Tech Propaganda Campaign

Canadian newspapers have colluded to launch a massive anti-technology propaganda campaign. Their aim is to pressure government to institute a link tax law.

Canadian news outlets have long prided themselves as being a neutral source of fact-based journalism. They are there to tell the stories and let the facts speak for themselves. It’s a big reason why many read their articles in the first place.

In recent years, though, their credibility has been gradually sinking. In the 2000’s, many were publishing regurgitated press releases by major corporate interests during the copyright debates. Their credibility took pretty big hits as they published misinformation about file-sharing. This includes how the entertainment industry is dying because of copyright infringement. That never actually held true and facts uncovered by people like myself later debunked those conspiracy theories.

One famous headline was “Pirates of the Canadian”. That piece said that a vast majority of theater piracy was sources to Canadian theaters. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was pushing for anti-camcording laws in Canada. Analysis pointed out that such a law isn’t necessary because such an activity is already illegal. In addition, the facts later came out that camcording piracy was largely sourced from other countries, not just Canada.

Of course, Canadian newspapers regurgitating the anti-technology propaganda always seemed to have that plausible deniability. That is that maybe their journalists were simply unaware of how things work in copyright and technology. As a result, people like myself had to go online and, once again, correct the record. It so often was under the assumption that a junior journalist was stuck with writing the story and simply didn’t have the knowledge to critically think about the details. Sometimes, there is the odd journalist here and there working for a major outlet that actually understood the issues and was able to write some decent pieces along the way.

Now, that plausible deniability has been pretty much wiped out. Recently, major Canadian newspapers have launched a coordinated propaganda campaign aimed at trying to pressure the Canadian government to institute the failed link tax law. The link tax law has been an experiment in other countries like Spain where aggregators need to pay a license fee for the privilege of sending traffic to news sources. Aggregators are, of course, linking to sources and using snippets and thumbnails that are well within the realms of fair dealing/fair use laws in those respective countries.

Australia, more recently, is pushing for the link tax law. Those moves are already starting to backfire as Google threatens to pull search out of the country. This echos Facebook’s threat to pull their news feed out of the country as well. Those moves came after months of negotiation and trying to explain why instituting a bad link tax law is a very wrong-headed move.

If anything, it’s basically a way of driving search engines out of the country. Such a thing will, of course, have a devastating impact on the very outlets that are pushing for these laws in the first place. As seen in the Spanish case, ad revenue dried up, subscriptions plummeted, and viewership tanked. This left publishers begging for Google and other aggregators to return to the country. Ultimately, such a move is very self-destructive because so many outlets depend on the likes of Google and Facebook to drive traffic to their site.

Yet, in spite of all the evidence and all the lessons to be learned, Canadian publishers are determined enough to try and do the same thing again here and expect a different result. The same thing will happen regardless, but it will also cause unimaginable damage to the Internet ecosystem in Canada in the process.

More recently, Facebook and Google have both been warning the Canadian government to not implement a link tax. It’s not that they are greedy or refuse to pay publishers, but rather, it makes no business sense to continue operating in Canada if a bad link tax law is implemented. The damage it will cause to Canada will be quite significant as it will signal to the world that when it comes to innovation, Canada is closed to business.

Yesterday, Canadian newspapers began circulating with blank pages. Their propaganda campaign is entitled “Disappearing Headlines” and is coordinated by News Media Canada. The idea appears to be that newspapers are dying off. Without the Canadian government instituting a link tax law, then news will die off completely.

That, of course, is highly misleading and falls well within the category of misinformation. Probably the only thing true about any of it is that newspapers are going under. The reason why? Well, that is where the the campaign starts departing from the truth. Over the last decade, newspapers have been gradually going under for a variety of reasons. One of the big reasons for this is dwindling ad revenue. As other small businesses start disappearing, there are less and less advertising opportunities that pays the bills.

A second reason is that the audience for newspapers is disappearing. A lot of traditional newspapers depend on older audiences. This is because younger people more frequently get their news online. This means less eyeballs on the local paper. After all, news takes days to print whereas the Internet features instant access. With fewer people reading, that means less incentive to use newspapers as an advertising medium. Competition online has the advantage of being made available instantly, so newspapers are basically competing against a technologically superior product.

A third reason why newspapers are disappearing is a failure to adapt to a more modern reality. There were plenty of newspapers who simply decided that this whole Internet thing is just a fad that will eventually go away. Some believe that going online “isn’t what their readers want”, so, therefore, they decided that they should simply stick with print media as their primary form of distribution. Some did so at their peril and went out of business because of it.

A fourth reason newspapers are going out of business is an issue that affects pretty much everyone in the business: COVID-19. With businesses closing down temporarily, there is literally no reason to advertise. Many pulled their advertising budgets immediately. As a result, ad revenue quickly dried up. We personally saw this last year. We were far from the only one to observe this.

Note the pattern of these reasons: none of them have anything to do with “Google not paying their fair share”. If anything, the likes of Google and Facebook have helped keep news outlets afloat because people can still use Google and Facebook to link them to those articles those publishers are posting in the first place. Without aggregators, a very strong case can be made that news outlets will be in a much more dire situation then they are now. If anything, those aggregators should be thanked for helping out the business.

To address the above latter point, news will not simply die off because Google isn’t paying a ransom for linking to their material. There is absolutely no evidence that directly supports this perspective.

Of course, the newspapers aren’t simply publishing blank front pages. They are also accompanying them with coordinated propaganda. One example is found in The Toronto Star. Here’s one excerpt:

It costs real money to report trusted, fact-based news. Unfortunately, global tech giants such as Google and Facebook refuse to pay a fair price for content created by Canadian news outlets. At the same time, these titans drain off more than 80 per cent of all digital advertising revenue in Canada.

This assertion is false on two fronts. There has never been an expectation that Google and Facebook pay for linking to their outlets before now. As a result, the fair price has always been nothing because Facebook and google are providing these outlets a free service that bolsters their revenue streams – be it subscription or ad revenue. What is different now is that publishers are demanding Google and Facebook to pay for a free lunch to the publishers.

The second way that the above quote is false is the assertion that the tech giants “drain off more than 80 per cent of all digital advertising revenue in Canada”. This suggests that all the money in advertising simply goes to the tech giants. The reality with Google adsense is that websites like us take out advertising to help pay the server bills. We actually get paid to put those advertisements up in the first place. Does Facebook and Google control 80% of the ad space? Sure. We wouldn’t object to opening a debate about whether this constitutes monopolistic control, but this has nothing to do with the push for publishers demanding to get paid for getting linked to here.

The comments go on to say this:

The result is that local newspapers across Canada have closed in recent years and hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs.

This is, at best, highly misleading. As mentioned above, newspapers have been closing for a variety of reasons. To suggest that a lack of a link tax is solely to blame for this is misinformation.

Of course, The Toronto Star isn’t the only outlet to publish elements of this misinformation campaign. Global New is also publishing their version of this campaign. From their take:

“Imagine if the news wasn’t there when we needed it,” read the message on the blank front pages.

“If nothing is done, the journalism industry will disappear.”

The warnings come as a part of a campaign from News Media Canada, which represents the print and digital media industry in Canada. It’s part of a push to warn Canadians that without government intervention, the beleaguered journalism industry could crumble away.

“It’s a fact that news companies across Canada are going out of business. COVID-19 is accelerating the decline. Journalism jobs are disappearing,” wrote John Hinds, President and CEO News Media Canada, in a letter sent to members of Parliament.

“That means real news keeps disappearing and hate and fake news will be all that’s left to distribute.”

Of course, the suggestion that if there is no link tax law, then the only thing left will be fake news is, ironically, false information. Ironically, the quote mentions COVID-19 which is an actual reason for the decline. Again, Google and Facebook had nothing to do with COVID-19 in the first place. So, it leads to the question why Google and Facebook have to pay for the devastation COVID-19 has inflicted on the industry. In some respect, Global ended up debunking itself in the process.

Perhaps the more fundamental aspect in all of this is the fact that publishers have basically sacrificed their credibility on this matter. If these newspapers are actively colluding to take a swipe at Google and Facebook, how can anyone trust their coverage on Google, Facebook, and technology policy ever again? We’ve known them for having an anti-technology and anti-innovation bias for years, but with this latest campaign, they seem to be much more naked about their bias.

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs, but it seems that, from now on, one has to look at any technology coverage they publish through the lens of knowing that they are against technology in the first place.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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