Government Continues to Politicize the Wildfires, but Changes to the Law Not Happening

The Canadian government is doubling down on politicizing the wildfires, but claims that changes to the law can happen are greatly exaggerated.

The situation with news links, though highly predictable and expected, is not good. News links and news media accounts have been getting dropped from Meta platforms. With Google largely expected to follow suit sometime after, this has arguably been one of, if not, the worst thing to happen to the Canadian news sector. Yet, however bad it is, the situation was also entirely brought on by the large media companies themselves. It is well and truly a situation where the large media companies shot themselves in the foot as they mistakenly thought that they were going to get a free lunch out of the deal.

With both the large media companies and the government being completely out of options in this situation, they have resorted to all sorts of desperate ploys and gaslighting campaigns. Recently, they sunk to a whole new low when they sickeningly politicized the wildfires, using the victims as political pawns to achieve their political agendas. Some of those claims falsely said that Meta is doing this in response to the wildfires, putting people’s lives in danger. This is disgusting behaviour and, at minimum, they should apologize to the victims for using this tragedy to score cheap political points.

Disturbingly, however, the government is continuing to double down. At a Cabinet retreat press conference, various ministers continued to suggest that Meta is endangering people’s lives while calling on Meta to reverse course. Some even went so far as to demand that Meta ‘comply with the law’ and restore news links.

Obviously, the problem with those calls is the fact that dropping news links is, in fact, in compliance with the law. Under the Online News Act, the large platforms have two choices. The choices are to either “negotiate” deals with the media companies or drop news links, exiting the news link “marketplace” (government officials words, not mine). Both Meta and Google have made it clear that they chose the latter option. As a result, the Canadian government and the large media companies have been throwing hissy fits ever since because their dreams of freeloading off of the platforms have come crashing down.

Moreover, the talking point of “but Australia!” has effectively died thanks to this going on for more than half a month now. Supposedly, the platforms would cave, restore news links, and quickly move to “secure deals”. That hasn’t happened. As a result, pretty much every talking point has collapsed and every scheme to change the situation failed to alter the situation. Desperation, as a result, set in and that’s how we got the disregard for human life that’s been on display recently.

Another bizarre claim being floated, especially by Heritage Minister, Pascale St-Onge, is that there is going to be a consultation process before the law comes into force. This is a bizarre claim because, as we noted back in July, the government said that the bill will come into force no later than 180 days after the bill receives royal assent. Here’s part of the governments original statement back then:

Obligations under the Online News Act will come into effect no later than 180 days after June 22, 2023, the day Bill C-18 received Royal Assent. When elements of the Act come into effect will depend on regulations from the Governor in Council (GIC), and the implementation of processes by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

This puts the final deadline to December 19th of this year. There’s nothing stopping the government from making the bill come into force before then. All it meant was that the time window for the bill to come into force was pretty much that day up to December 19th. This puts immense legal pressure on the platforms to act sooner rather than later. Sure, the government could host “consultations” (quotation marks because consultation processes lately on tech issues have been pretty bad lately, turning such processes into mere box ticking exercises before forging ahead with their own original plans after.

What’s more, the insinuation by the Heritage Minister is that the platforms are free to work with them at any time, suggesting that this is something they have not done. The truth in the matter is that platforms have been contacting the government over this on multiple occasions. Google, for instance, has contacted the government more than 100 times, but Google was unable to really get anywhere with the government up to that point.

What’s more, the suggestion by government officials that the law can be changed to “address” the “concerns” with the platforms is greatly exaggerated. The bill has received royal assent. There’s no “consultation” process afterwards that allows for any changes to the core concepts laid out in the bill. University law professor, Michael Geist, also came to those conclusions as well:

The claims associated with the government’s regulation making process have been vastly overstated. Indeed, if it was the platforms making the claims, they would probably be called disinformation. About the only regulation that really matters right now involves Section 11, since it sets the criteria for an exemption from arbitration and approval of the deals between platforms and media companies. The reports about Google and the government negotiating aspects of the law surely involves what the exemption criteria is and how it will be interpreted. For example, the inclusion of a minimum spend by way of regulation would provide cost certainty and effectively have the government dictate to the CRTC how the criteria should be interpreted (namely, ignore them all if Google meets the spending target). The remainder are minor and have no real impact on how the law will be applied to Meta or Google.

When News Media Canada says “what we’re saying to Meta is, ‛The regulations aren’t drafted yet. Pick up a pen. Put down your saber and let’s try to work through this together” it’s a fake out designed to deceive. There are no regulations to be discussed that change the core elements of the law. It’s been decided, has received royal assent, and kicks in anytime within the next 120 days. News Media Canada and the associated lobby groups won the battle for Bill C-18. It’s the resulting consequences they don’t like.

As Geist also noted, throughout the process, whether it is in drafting the bill, the committee processes, dealing with public concerns, and the final votes being cast, all of the concerns about the damaging effects of the bill were flatly ignored. Concerns that this would lead to news links blocking on the platforms were brushed aside with the talking point of “that’s what they said in Australia and look what happened”. That was the end of it and any efforts to re-raise these concerns were just dismissed with similar reasons – even accusing those raising these concerns as just “shills for Big Tech” or “card carrying Conservatives” trying to make the government look bad or even “stupid people who don’t understand the bill” (we know the bill better than most, actually).

As Geist said, the debate about how the bill works is over. The media got everything it wanted here. They have proven that corrupt lobbying can, and will, win the day over common sense. The Online News Act is a bad bill, built on the corruption of the large media companies and the lawmaking process. Now, reality has come crashing in and the large media companies and the government are getting a hard lesson in “actions have consequences”. The government can play fast and loose with how things work, but it isn’t going to make a difference.

The effort to try and confuse the situation might fool some people. Indeed, the reason that the Online Streaming Act (formerly Bill C-11), hasn’t been enforced is because there is a consultation process currently under way. It’s possible that the government thought they could get people to confuse the Online Streaming Act with the Online News Act when, in fact, the CRTC itself noted during the senate committee, there is no consultation process like Bill C-11. The consultation process was clear in the Online Streaming Act, but there is no similar provisions in the Online News Act.

At the end of the day, the abandonment of basic morality is probably the most horrific thing I’ve seen in this debate. I knew that the large media companies were desperate at this point, saying anything and everything as the watch their presence gets wiped out from two or three large massive platforms. Still, even I was taken aback by using tragedy to score cheap political points in this debate. What’s more, claims that there is room to negotiate are greatly exaggerated. For the government, it’s still a case of either repealing the Online News Act or continue to have Canada suffer the consequences. The government apparently is continuing to choose the latter option.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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