Government Cuts off Debate in Bid to Pass Bill C-18, But Media Grows Nervous

With Bill C-18 back in the House of Commons, the government is silencing debate to ram it through quickly.

As we near the end of the legislative process, one can’t help but wonder if anyone could’ve predicted the general air around this bill. If anything, a reasonable prediction might have been that the media would be popping the champagne, tech and law experts losing their minds, and platforms quietly moving towards possibly blocking news links anyway. Yet, here we are today with very few in a celebratory mood. If anything, the pats on the backs happening seem to be largely exclusive to MPs in the House of Commons who seem to be oblivious to what is happening outside of the halls of government.

Indeed, the threats became much more real when Facebook began test blocking news links for 5% of Canadians. The test came after months of warnings that this would happen – warnings that were simply dismissed as some big fancy bluffs at the time. For experts, the move felt highly vindicating since some have faced accusations of being part of a grand conspiracy with “big tech” as they supposedly pushed disinformation because they were all on the take. Fortunately, those accusations have been waning ever since the test was announced, leaving supporters of the bill embarrassed and forced to admit that the experts may have been right all along.

Compounding the problem was the media attempting to get reassurances that the situation was under control only to witness officials having no answers to the situation. Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, didn’t seem to have any answers. Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was equally at a loss for answers, choosing instead to say that he was very very disappointed in the platforms.

Just to twist the knife even further, recently released data showed that platforms are driving even less traffic to news sites – another point that critics have long pointed out. While some supporters worked hard to reassure themselves with cherry picked data saying things like how 20% of people use social media to access news, the data in that study again drove home the point that platforms really don’t see the value that news publishers seem to think they offer platforms in the first place.

More recently, Bell announced massive job cuts as multiple radio stations got shuttered. In the midst of all of this, Bell chief legal and regulatory officer Robert Malcolmson admitted that Bill C-18 may not have the effect that they were hoping it would have. At this point, it seems that everywhere supporters of the bill turned, there was just more evidence that critics are gradually being proven correct in their concerns all along. It may be why there is a bit less chatter these days despite supporters being on the verge of what they thought might be a moment of triumph – the passage of Bill C-18.

Indeed, we appear to be getting closer to the final passage of the legislation. As University Law professor, Michael Geist, noted, debate is getting cut short as the government pushes to ram through the legislation:

The Online News Act, the government’s legislative initiative to make Google and Meta pay hundreds of Canadian media companies for links to their news content, is likely to become law before politicians break for the summer later this week. In fact, despite plans for an evening debate on the bill last night, the government interrupted MP Martin Champoux in mid-speech, cut the debate short, and gave notice that it plans to limit debate altogether this week (the irony that the government is cutting off debate on a bill it claims is essential to holding it to account should not be lost on anyone). The bill will likely be passed by the House by mid-week. Since the government is rejecting two Senate amendments, the bill will go back to the Senate for approval.

Geist went to great length discussing how generative AI is going to disrupt everything anyway, rendering the legislation obsolete. Others have even suggested that these changes will take over within months:

The lion’s share of attention on Bill C-18 has thus far focused on the response of the two internet companies, as both have raised the prospect of blocking news content on their platforms if faced with new financial liability for linking. Yet my Globe and Mail op-ed argues that focus ignores a vital new reality that may already render the bill out of date. Several witnesses before the Senate committee studying the bill pointed to the emergence of generative artificial intelligence and its impact on the news business. They included The Logic’s David Skok and Globe and Mail publisher Phillip Crawley, who warned that links to news content on Google – a primary portal for consuming news for many – “could be disrupted in the next six to 12 months quite significantly by the difference that ChatGPT and generative AI is already making in only six months.”

The Senate tinkered with a few minor modifications to Bill C-18, but the resulting bill is still wholly incapable of addressing the burgeoning commercial, legal and policy challenges posed by generative AI. Generative AI might transform both search and news, but the not-so-secret reality of the Online News Act is that it is written for a different era entirely. In fact, the bill acts as if AI does not exist at all.

Indeed, there are reasonable concerns with the technological shift with AI, however, it is worth pointing out that this is not the only way that things are shifting greatly. Another way that things are shifting is with social media itself. The legislation assumes that social media will be the way it is for years to come. That is social media that is highly centralized and that platforms like Facebook will remain unchallenged. This with the possible considerations of later roping in platforms like Twitter and TikTok, another two highly centralized and profit focused platforms.

Yet, what seems to go unnoticed is decentralized platforms that have started eating away at the dominance of centralized profit driven platforms like Twitter and Reddit. Indeed, Twitter has long been getting absolutely cannibalized by platforms like Mastodon, scrappy brand new platforms that have high hopes of taking advantage of the downfall of Twitter. For the most part, those efforts largely succeeded as users kept flocking to the platform all year last year. More recently, there was the drama happening on Reddit that is leading to the rapid rise of alternatives like KBin, Lemmy, and BeeHaw which are all part of ActivityPub, the same protocol that Mastodon was built on.

The meltdown of Reddit has led to a second massive rise in new users using the platform. Bot accounts tracking the number of users have noted in recent days a massive intake in users. For some data tracking, it seems highly likely that ActivityPub could soon shoot past the 13 million user milestone. This thanks to sign ups ranging into the thousands per hour.

Fundamentally, platforms built on ActivityPub tend to be of a decentralized nature. One server may only be host to a few hundred users, but because the network is federated, users can access content found on completely different servers. As a result, it’s not difficult to access content found in the entire network. Further, users can easily switch between servers should the need arise.

Taken into the context of Bill C-18, it doesn’t take much to realize just how royally screwed over the legislation is. There’s no one central authority to complain to. If those enforcing the legislation are to take on something like Mastodon, the most that they can hope for is obtaining compliance with instances found on Canadian soil. If instance owners are asked to fork over millions for hosting links, those owners are likely to, unfortunately, shut down as they just wouldn’t have the money. This would force users to other instances where Canadian law simply doesn’t apply. Users will continue the usage and law enforcement would be completely out of luck trying to exercise Big Publishing’s rent seeking efforts as they demand payments for news links.

To put it simply, enforcing Bill C-18 would be all but impossible in a world where decentralized social media has taken root and started growing. Whatever “achievements” could be gained from an enforcement perspective would be little more than hollow victories at best. The fact is, decentralized social media is growing and growing fast. It would take a significant shift to stunt this momentum at this stage and such a shift doesn’t seem to be likely in the foreseeable future. As I said in my submission to the Canadian Senate, Bill C-18 is dead on arrival thanks to these developments alone. Efforts to put a further squeeze on the likes of Facebook would make the decentralized platforms more attractive in the end.

Of course, many of the concerns and points raised about Bill C-18 by critics like Geist or myself are continuing to fall on deaf ears back inside the halls of parliament. Recently, the Globe and Mail posted an article (probably paywalled) talking about which amendments were accepted and which ones were rejected. It seems that the Globe isn’t exactly happy with how things are turning out:

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has rejected a key Senate change to Bill C-18, the online news bill, dismissing a last-ditch attempt to prevent Facebook from restricting Canadians’ access to news on its platform.

Facebook has warned it would take away Canadians’ ability to access and share news on its platform if the bill passes without significant changes. Google has said it has yet to decide if it would do the same. Both have tested restricting access for more than a million Canadians while Parliament has been considering the bill.

But the Heritage Minister rejected a Senate amendment that was considered a compromise to try to keep tech platforms on board. The amendment was designed to clarify that the “value” flowing both ways between news organizations and the tech giants should be a key factor in such negotiations.

“This was a pragmatic and reasonable amendment that added clarity to the bill,” said Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, who proposed the change. “It was not in any way an amendment proposed by the platforms but it was to try to clarify some of the vagueness that has been talked about by Google.”

If the data, statements from officials, recent statements and layoffs by Bell, and the Facebook test wasn’t enough to send a chill down the spines of journalists, this should only further add to the anxiety of this whole sorry situation. From this organizations perspective, there is now a further incentive for Facebook to block news links entirely. Indeed, throughout the hearings on Bill C-18, even supporters of the bill admitted that they take considerable traffic from Google and Facebook. The impact of the loss of Facebook alone ranged from admitting that it would hurt them to it being what finishes off a given organization.

Right now, there is only two things stopping the total carnage that seems destined to sweep across the news sector. The first is the fact that Bill C-18 hasn’t been implemented yet. The second is the idea that Facebook and Google might make what would arguably be one of the worst business decisions they have ever made and simply go along with this whole scheme anyway.

The reason going along with this scheme would be such a horrible decision is multi-faceted. First of all, domestically, the platforms are needlessly paying for content that has little impact on their overall operations in Canada. Why throw money at something as small and unimpactful as news links? Additionally, it would further embolden other countries to enact their own laws and demand payments for links.

Over top of that, it severely undermines Google and Facebooks credibility. As supporters of the bill have been so keen to point out, the platforms blocked news links in Australia only to capitulate days later. Indeed, it was a horrible idea to capitulate in Australia because, as we said at the time, other countries will want their pound of flesh too. For the platforms, it seemed like a reasonable gamble at the time to go along with this and hope the law doesn’t spread to other countries. Today, we have been correct on these predictions and the two big platforms are back at square one. A capitulation here would effectively signal to the rest of the world that news link blockages are a bluff – look at what they did in both Canada and Australia. No one would have a reason to believe the platforms making these threats in other countries if they capitulated in Canada as well.

All signs point to news link blockages happening somewhere along the line. Supporters of the bill are banking on the two big platforms to go full stupid and just fold in the situation even though they have this debate all but locked up at this stage. Everyone in the sector has every reason to be nervous about when the shoe will drop and their organizations suddenly getting cut off of Google and Facebook. With the loss of revenues that would ensue, the situation will look far from pretty – especially for the smaller operations out there in Canada. The odds are that it’s not a matter of if this nightmare scenario will unfold, but when.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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