Heritage Minister, Steven Guilbeault, Calls Lack of Link Tax “Immoral”

The notorious legacy of the Canadian Heritage Minister is seemingly continuing. The current minister is continuing to push for a Canadian link tax law.

If you follow the copyright debate in Canada, one of the most notorious governmental positions is the Canadian Heritage Minister. Whatever mega multinational corporations want, they get an advocate with the heritage minister of the day. As for what is in the interest of Canadians, well, that almost always get shoved to the side.

The image of the minister always working against the interest of Canadians dates back to the beginning of when I was writing news and very likely extends further back for all I know. Back in 2005, I personally started becoming familiar with how the Heritage Minister typically operates when Paul Martin was prime minister. At the time, I was battling the then notorious Bill C-60 and Bil C-74. Bill C-60 would’ve greenlit mass litigation against alleged copyright infringers on file-sharing networks. It was pushed hard by infamous Heritage Minister, Sam Bulte.

When Stephen Harper triggered a successful non-confidence motion, the bill died on the orderpaper. This much to the relief of Canadians, but to the fury of foreign multinational record labels who have been wanting to rake in huge profits from suing music fans. Stephen Harper ultimately won the next election and would become a hugely controversial Prime Minister for a number of reasons. Still, a different government must mean a different approach to copyright at least, right? Nope. The Heritage Minister that took over tabled a largely carbon copy copyright reform bill known as Bill C-61. It ultimately proved that there is no difference between Conservatives and Liberals on the copyright file and have no problem giving Canadians the middle finger on this front.

In the years since, the Heritage Minister also pushed Bill C-32 before finally giving Canadians a reprieve. Under Stephen Harper, the Heritage Minister of the day finally put together something that at least loosely resembled a compromise between foreign corporations and Canadian interests. The major record labels got their anti-circumvention laws and alleged file-sharers wouldn’t be on the hook for millions in fines over the trivial act of non-commercial infringement. It took years of protests, but Canadians finally got a seat at the table on the copyright debate.

While it was a nice reprieve to see a Heritage Minister acknowledge Canadians in the copyright debate, such an acknowledgement seemed to only be fleeting. Now, we are seeing the Canadian Heritage Minister go back to toeing the corporate line by pushing for the failed link tax law.

As many of you know, a link tax is basically a giant money grab from big publishing. Aggregators and publishers have retained a symbiotic relationship for more than a decade. The aggregators send traffic to publishers which increases their ad revenue and subscriptions. In turn, small snippets and thumbnails from the publishers appear in search results that are ultimately a fair dealing or fair use move. The aggregator collects the news from the publishers and becomes more useful to users. In recent years, the big publishers started saying they want to be paid by aggregators for the privilege of sending them traffic.

Recently, Facebook threatened to delete the news feed for Australian’s should the country move ahead with the link tax law. It’s a highly understandable move because incurring additional expenses just to retain existing services is plain ridiculous. The move by big publishing to demand this is basically a great example of biting the hand that feeds it. Publishers need aggregators more than aggregators need publishers. So, pulling out of the country means a bit of a hit for the aggregator, but a crippling blow to publishers who depend on the Internet to make up for dwindling subscriptions for physical papers and magazines.

Of course, for the current Canadian Heritage Minister, it seems that reality and real world examples means little. Steven Guilbeault is pushing for a Canadian version of the link tax law. Recently, he suggested that not only the link tax is a great idea, but a moral imperative. From Michael Geist:

Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault appeared on The West Block over the weekend in an interview that provides a strong – and disturbing – sense of where the government is headed on Internet regulation. Most problematic was the discussion on compensation from social media companies such as Facebook to news organizations for allowing their users to link to news articles. As I discussed in a post last week examining recent developments in Australia:

Facebook users post many things – photos, videos, personal updates, and links to various content online, including news articles. Those news articles do not appear in full. Rather, they are merely links that send users to the original news site. From Facebook’s perspective, there is enormous value in referring users to media sites, who benefit from advertising revenue from the visits.

Facebook has said that it will block all news sharing on its platform in Australia if the government proceeds with a mandated payment system, noting the limited value of the links and arguing that its referrals that are worth hundreds of millions to the news organizations. If Canada were to pursue the same strategy, Canadian news sites would also likely be blocked and a trade complaint under the USMCA would be a virtual certainty.

Yet despite the significant risks and survey data that this could lead to a less informed public, Guilbeault is aligning with Rupert Murdoch, the chief advocate for these payments in Australia. He characterizes non-payment as “immoral and unacceptable”, claiming that Facebook makes hundreds of millions of dollars from Canadian media content without fair compensation. This points to a showdown like the one taking place in Australia, even though Canada has announced significant support for the sector that Guilbeault has thus far largely failed to deliver.

The same interview pointed to another upcoming series of reforms focused on requiring foreign Internet companies to create Canadian content. Guilbeault says:

“We’re going to put some fairness into the Canadian regulatory system, because right now there is no fairness. We have Canadian companies that have regulatory obligations and we have international web giants that have none. And that’s unsustainable.”

It’s basically the same talking points made by big publishing. The conspiracy theory pushed by big publishing (and now, the Canadian Heritage Minister) is that aggregators are stealing content from publishers without paying them. As a result, aggregators are somehow stealing from publishers and driving them out of business because of an “unfair” system or an “unlevel” playing field. There is, of course, absolutely no basis for this as it’s a complete fabrication. The reality is that what is being demanded by big publishing is free money for nothing.

To further the point of what is going on in reality, newspapers have found themselves struggling for years now. This is because more and more people migrated from getting their news from newspaper and moved online to get their information. News websites popped up early to snap up this rush in new eyeballs. As technology progressed and the Internet became more and more of an important factor in people’s daily lives, the question for legacy print media is whether or not to establish an online presence or simply hold out and hope this whole “Internet thing” magically goes away on it’s own like a fad. Those that chose to view the Internet as the next Pog craze frequently found themselves shutting down for good. That aspect is very well documented.

A more recent factor for the woes in the industry is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. That affected everyone including those who operate a web presence. This is directly related to ad revenue. Advertisers began pulling their ads in droves because, well, what good is it to advertise your physical location when you are shut down due to COVID-19? The problem affected everyone for months including us and larger websites like Fark. While we survived, others did not and many large news organizations took a financial hit.

So, those are two big reasons for any woes facing the industry. If anything, news aggregators have been a source that is saving the news organizations. Now, big publishing is bent on punishing a major source saving the industry for their efforts with the punishing link tax law.

In the midst of the Heritage Minister pushing for the destructive link tax law, some observers are asking where Navdeep Bains is. Citing Bains letter, Michael Geist comments with the following:

These issues touching on Internet regulation, copyright reform, and online competition, engage both portfolios and both ministers have been mandated to address them. Guilbeault may think of Internet companies as akin to environmental polluters, but is that view shared by Bains? If not, it is time for the Innovation, Science and Industry to speak out and live up to his own mandate letter.

This can definitely be explained from a political lens. After Parliament was re-opened to address the major COVID-19 crisis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued government. The idea is, of course, to allow Members of Parliament (MPs) to go back to their respective ridings for the time being. Parliament can then reconvene during a normal time it’s supposed to be open. A new session of Parliament typically opens with a Speech from the Throne. After the speech, MPs get to vote on the speech. The thing is, it’s also a vote of confidence. That means that if MPs vote it down, it triggers an election. Since Canada is in a minority situation, it’s theoretically possible that an election could be triggered.

So, with a Speech from the Throne still forthcoming, the media is whipping themselves into a frenzy over speculation of whether or not an election could be called. The problem is that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and it would be a really bad idea to be the party to trigger an election at this time. It would easily be seen as a selfish power grab even if Elections Canada sorts out how to safely hold the election. There is speculation that the Conservatives might be crazy enough to make an attempt at triggering an election, but they don’t have enough MPs alone to trigger it. They need help from another opposition party.

Still, there’s always that possibility that election could be called. Because of that, the last thing Trudeau likely wants is different ministers clashing over policy. That would be terrible optics because it could cause the government to look like they are in disarray and not united. As a result, this definitely can explain why Bains might be silent on the copyright issue. Whether he is being told to remain silent or he is doing this on his own prerogative, it’s very likely a calculated move to try and assist in building an image of unity.

If the push to remain silent comes from higher up, then this signals that the Liberal government is going back to the bad old days. Those bad old days, as highlighted above, show a Liberal party towing corporate lines and ignoring Canadian voices in the process. Since some people have the attitude that Canada will always vote Liberal, this fosters the Liberal parties notorious entitlement issue. Part of that is the attitude that “I can be as corrupt as I want to be and there will be no consequence because Canadians will vote for me anyway”. As a result, we could be seeing a Liberal government only concerned with what is in the interest of major multinational corporations (and push bad legislation onto Canadians as a consequence).

If the silence is an active choice on Bains part, then it opens up the possibility that the Heritage Minister might suddenly run up against resistance against the Innovation, Science and Industry Ministry. Such a clash wouldn’t be unprecedented in Canadian politics with respect to copyright issues. Once the whiff of possible election is gone, then there might be more resistance afterwards.

Both possibilities have precedence and both are definitely possible. It’s unfortunate that the voice for bad Internet policy is taking the spotlight at this stage. It’s definitely possible that this is a play to get that fundraising money should an election get called (“See??? I did your bidding! If you want more of that, cut me a check and help my campaign!”). If that’s the case, then the elite only access is definitely seeping back into the Liberal party again.

Regardless, this highlights a pretty disturbing trend that we first picked up back in May. At the time, Toronto Star reporters were badgering the government over whether or not they would implement the link tax law. Our speculation that they are also probably sending in the lobbyists was probably correct in the process. By the end of June, we are already seeing the Heritage Minister going rogue and pushing for the link tax law. For all we know, more checks are clearing and we are seeing an even greater push now. Certainly not a good development in Canada to say the least.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: