Heritage Minister, Pascale St-Onge, Doesn’t Seem to Understand How Bill C-18 Works

Heritage Minister, Pascale St-Onge went on a media tour to talk about the Online News Act. Her knowledge of it seems to be rather sketchy.

Is the new Heritage Minister, Pascale St-Onge in over her head with her new role? That is increasingly the question being asked after a series of missteps right out of the gate.

It was only last month that St-Onge got her new role as Minister for Canadian Heritage. Her first month into the new job hasn’t exactly gone well. Already, she tried to pretend that a failed boycott had momentum. She also tried to turn the debate of the Online News Act into a partisan battle even though critics span all political stripes.

One question people might have is whether or not the minister even understands the bill she is defending in the first place. In recent days, that has been thrown into doubt. Apparently, the minister has been on a media blitz, trying to sell the legislation. The problem is that she’s saying things that… aren’t actually true. University law professor, Michael Geist, has been able to correct the record on some of her comments:

St-Onge may want to leave the impression that there is an easy out for the tech companies, yet the reality is those comments fundamentally misunderstand how Bill C-18 works. First, signing agreements does not result in an exemption from the law. Unlike the Australian law – which did grant the government the ability to grant an exemption under the law – the Canadian law does not adopt the same approach. So long as Google and Meta facilitate access to news content (ie. link to it), they will be treated as digital news intermediaries (DNIs) under the law and there is no available exemption. This means that the many rules in Bill C-18, including codes of conduct, disclosure requirements, rules governing the display of news content, etc. are all applicable to them regardless of the existence of negotiated agreements. Simply put, when St-Onge claims the companies would be exempt under the law, she is wrong.

Second, perhaps St-Onge meant to say that reaching agreements by year-end would exempt the DNIs from the final offer arbitration process in the law. However, this too is at best misleading since merely signing agreements does not achieve that outcome. Rather, the agreements are submitted to the CRTC, which is tasked with reviewing them and considering whether to approve them as sufficient to avoid the final offer arbitration process. There is enormous uncertainty associated with this process with both additional government and CRTC regulations to come. That uncertainty is a significant concern, since companies could sign agreements and still find themselves subject to the final offer arbitration process.

Third, St-Onge’s assurances about deals signed over the coming months ignores the CRTC’s timeline for implementing Bill C-18. The CRTC does not envision mandatory bargaining starting until early 2025, which means that approval of “eligible news businesses” could take years. Given that timeframe, the Internet companies don’t even have the full slate of media companies with whom they can negotiate since Commission certification is still years away.

St-Onge indicated that the draft Bill C-18 regulations could come this week. Those regulations may provide increased certainty on some issues, but – as I wrote here – their scope is still fairly limited. Indeed, most of the law is finalized. The new Heritage Minister would do well to ensure she understands it.

Indeed, if you can’t be bothered to read the legislation, you could still understand this by listening to the senate hearings on this bill. At no point did anyone suggest that the simple act of the platforms signing a deal means that they would no longer be designated under the Act. That is how the Australian model works, but it’s not how the Canadian model. Instead, platforms are basically automatically designated. The only way they can avoid being forced to undergo “mandatory negotiation” is if they drop news links entirely in Canada – something they are in the process of doing.

In theory, deals could be struck voluntarily between now and 2025, but given the platforms move to drop news links entirely, this isn’t likely to happen. What’s more, even if voluntary deals are struck, the CRTC can still review the deals after the fact and say that they don’t find the deal satisfactory in the first place. There’s just so much uncertainty about everything involved.

I get that if you are not exactly someone who knows technology that well, these laws can be hard to understand. Indeed, trying to keep the Online Streaming Act and Online News Act separate can be a skill in and of itself. There are elements that are different for both, but can cause some to confuse one over the other. For instance, one has a policy direction from government while the other does not.

Still, it’s kind of the Minister’s job to understand these things. It’s bad enough that the Minister doesn’t really understand the legislation related to their own portfolio, but it’s even worse when that Minister does rounds of speaking to the media on the bill on top of it all, only to say things that aren’t actually accurate. The Minister should’ve spent some time actually understanding the inner workings of these laws first before making a fool out of herself in front of the cameras and microphones.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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