Editorial: My Letter to My MP Regarding Bill C-18 (Link Taxes)

With the link taxes tabled, Drew Wilson decided to write another letter to his Member of Parliament.

Earlier, I wrote an analysis of Bill C-18. Like other bills of critical concern, I wanted to read through the legislation and get an unfiltered look at the bill. By writing that analysis, I was able to share with others what I did find. What’s more is that I noted how open I was to the idea that maybe there was something I missed or something I didn’t quite interpret correctly. The goal isn’t to pad my ego, but rather, get a clear understanding of the legislation. In so doing, I also hope that my analysis confirmed what other people might have found along the way.

The bottom line, however, is that this legislation sucks. It’s not an existential threat to the continuation of Freezenet, but it will have detrimental impacts on it. Those detrimental impacts will affect a vast majority of websites out there operating in Canada as well. So, while it sucks for Freezenet, Freezenet is in the exact same boat with many other sites out there.

So, since I am concerned with the legislation, I decided to write a letter to my MP expressing my concern with the legislation. While I could simply join a mass e-mailer (and there is nothing wrong with them!), I felt that it is better to write my own letter to have that personal touch thrown in as well. This to punctuate the point that this legislation is bad for very real people out there. So, here is what I wrote to my Member of Parliament:

Dear (member name removed),

I am writing to you today to express my concern of the recently tabled legislation, Bill C-18 (also known as the Online News Act).

To preface this, I want to give you some background on who I am and what I do. I am a journalist that writes for my own website. That website is freezenet.ca.

When I started this website in 2013, it was largely to continue my online career as a journalist. Journalism wasn’t really something I chose as a career, but rather, journalism ultimately chose me. I was part of a web forum in 2005 that discussed technology and online copyright. I was happy to just talk about the news. One day, a staff member asked me if I was interested in writing news for a little while. I was a bit nervous, but I said “yes” because I thought that maybe that would be something interesting to do for a little while.

Well, that “little while” turned into a full blown career for me. I wrote for two different websites prior to creating my own site in 2013. It was this constant interest to tell the stories of the day that has continued to fuel me as well as making a difference in people’s every day lives. I honestly don’t know what I would be doing with my life without journalism.

This passion of mine drew naturally drew me to more traditional environments. I worked at a television station with the hopes that, one day, I would become a journalist as well, contributing to a growing diversity of stories being told in the community. What’s more, I was excited to also be able to share my expertise in the world of online journalism to help promote local stories that shape our community.

After a number of years working at this television station, proving that I am a reliable individual with a flair for news writing and research, I applied multiple times to become a journalist. It seemed like a perfect fit. That was when it seemed as though I ran into nothing but road blocks.

I was repeatedly told that I didn’t have the right qualities that they were looking for. Even when I applied to be their web journalist, those applications quickly turned into rejections in favour of the employer simply hiring from out of province. When pressed for specifics, those specifics over what it was that I was missing, those specifics never came. This despite the website I was building completely eclipsing the popularity of their website.

I also applied for positions at local newspapers. I never got hired as a journalist in any position that came up. This despite the constant stories that they were crying out for someone of even a minor amount of experience to help fill their ranks. At one point, I was told, point blank, “come back when you write real news.”

It became apparent that it wasn’t my lack of skills that was stopping me from getting these jobs, but rather, a complete lack of skill for the employers to recognize such a depth of skills that I exhibit that would have greatly added to their business.

So, the only option for me was to continue building up Freezenet. After all, why wait for a manager to recognize that there is something to this whole “Internet” thing when I can just build up my own career myself? So, I continued to build up Freezenet from the ground up, adding feature after feature to make the site bigger and better.

In the years since, I quit that TV station, deciding that if years of proving myself wasn’t enough, then this talent is walking. The site expanded to take a presence on numerous platforms. With more content getting added on a regular basis, Freezenet’s reach into the Internet continues to expand. The clicks and the eyes kept turning more and more to Freezenet. In fact, last year, Freezenet has, in spite of increasingly lower rates for advertising, COVID-19, and rapid inflation, turned a profit for two months straight.

Looking into the future, my goal is to eventually turn Freezenet into an official licensed business, pay business taxes, donate to charity, create jobs for Canadians who, too, want to explore what is possible, and build up the community. It’s the kind of story that shows that when others say “no”, you can say “yes”. When others refuse to believe in you, you can choose to believe in yourself and prove the doubters wrong. In a cynical and discouraging world, better is possible.

Today, however, I know about Bill C-18. While it is formally known as the Online News Act, I refer to it as a link tax for a simple reason: it taxes the act of linking to content. It forces news aggregators like Google and platforms like Facebook to pay money for the privilege of hosting a link to a news source. That sounds like a great deal for any news source, right? Look closer at the details, however, and you will find that this legislation does exactly the opposite of “levelling the playing field”.

Section 11 of Bill C-18 lays out that it is extremely difficult for any news outlet to opt out of charging the likes of Google and Facebook for linking to them. Why would a news site want to opt out? It is because it is impossible for a news site such as mine to become eligible to bargain and, subsequently, receive funds from this system. Section 27 says “(1) At the request of a news business, the Commission must, by order, designate the business as eligible if it […] (b) produces news content that is primarily focused on matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes, and (i) regularly employs two or more journalists in Canada, […] and […] (iii) produces news content that is not primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment.”

The wording is very precise and very focused on ensuring that news sites like Freezenet is not only forced to charge aggregators and platforms for linking to it, but it is explicitly barred from ever receiving any of the subsequent funding after. So, the question is, where will the money go? The largest legacy players like CBC, Bell Media, and Global News. To put it another way, my hard work is going to be hijacked by a process that explicitly sends that money to these larger players.

If there is a way to opt my website out of this, I have been unable to find any practical way to do so. It is as if the government is saying that in my particular story, the wrong people are winning. The person that overcame every obstacle thrown his way and is finally seeing success that allows him to dream bigger should not come out on top in all of this. Instead, it is the legacy players that see the Internet as little more than a silly fad, who turn down the incredible talented people such as myself brought to the table in the early days, should be the ones who triumph in all of this. In short, this law punishes the new and increasingly successful players in the world of news and rewards the old legacy players – even when they make poor business decisions.

In my situation, the old legacy players will rake in untold and unspecified amounts of money simply for the fact that they published a news article. Meanwhile, someone like myself, who is innovating and finding new ways to grow a passion project into a career, will not see one cent of those benefits. I ask: “is this really levelling the playing field?”

Think about the wider implications of all of this. What market distortions will we see when the largest of news players receives such a massive unfair advantage? It means that the old legacy players will constantly have a foothold in the market while the smaller players that can make the market better will struggle. I can tell you first hand that starting a website and making it a success story is by no means easy.

What about innovation? When a legacy player is receiving free money to keep things rolling, what incentive is there to innovate and make their products better? If they have a monopoly in a particular market, what is the point of making that product better? After all, money will continue to flow in regardless of whether or not audiences are interested in seeing their news casts or read their articles. In fact, why bother pleasing an audience at all when they can enjoy a free ride?

Meanwhile, the ones that are trying to get a foothold in the market are the ones taking all of the risks. One bad move or bump on the road can spell the end of their journey to seeking success. This as the other players in the market have no reason to take risks or come up with bold new and innovative ideas. The harm to innovation is going to be enormous because the distorted market actively discourages innovation in the first place.

So, what is the solution? The solution is to scrap this legislation. You might be thinking, “why not just open the bill up to allow smaller players receive the benefits?” That is not a solution for the simple reason that linking to content should always be Fair Dealing that comes at no charge. If larger platforms and aggregators are forced to pay for linking, what is stopping future governments from expanding the definitions to include smaller players? What is stopping a future law from saying that smaller websites like my own should also pay for the privilege for linking? After all, is it really fair that only a few sites have to pay for linking in the first place? No.

On the thought process of fairness for the platforms and aggregators, most, if not, all platforms and aggregators targeted by this link tax are foreign sites and services – namely American ones. What is stopping American diplomats and trade officials from pointing to the link tax and saying that it unfairly targets American business? This opens up the possibility that Canada could be on the receiving end of a legal challenge to this law from the United States. In fact, I am aware of rumblings that this is actively being contemplated already. What trade sanctions could Canada face? Could they impact Canadian websites like mine? I honestly do not have an answer to that.

Further, there is no precedence in Copyright law that says that referencing material should be subject to charge. In academic circles, when you write an essay, are you charged a fee for every source you cite in a works cited list? No. If a research study is written, are works referenced subject to a charge? No. Then why is the Internet any different? Why are we upending the very concept of copyright law, tightening down Fair Dealing, and attacking a core feature of the World Wide Web when Copyright law has never seen anything like it in the first place?

The law itself states that the CRTC will oversee these laws and even have the power to make changes to large portions of it on its own. This is laid out in Section 85. This means that the government – namely a regulator, is not only deciding who is a journalism outlet and who is not, but is also actively changing these laws as they see fit. Given their recent decision to rubber-stamp the Rogers takeover of Shaw regardless of the widespread condemnation that such a deal is receiving, that alone is reason for concern. The government should not be in the business of deciding who can be considered a journalist and who cannot when part of journalism is to hold government to account.

This leads to only one conclusion: this law needs to be scrapped. It opens Canada up to international legal liability, it harms innovation, it attacks innovative startups while propping up legacy corporations, it harms small business, it is legally questionable from a Copyright law standpoint, it gives the government far too much power to decide who can be considered a journalist and who cannot, and is an overall bad policy to implement into law.

I worked hard to build Freezenet up. I’ve been faced with the work “no” a lot over the years. The last thing I want is the government to look me in the eyes and say “no” and add further barriers to my chances of success. In fact, I’m sure many Canadians who have a similar story of triumphing over barriers to become a success don’t want to be told “no” and have further barriers thrown down at their feet either. So, I ask you, please do what you can to fight against Bill C-18.

Thank you,
– Drew Wilson
Freezenet.ca Founder

I honestly don’t expect it to make a difference, but you can’t blame a guy for trying, right?

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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