How Bill C-18 Backers are Placing Way too Much Value on News on Platforms

Bill C-18 backers seem to think that the whole world revolves around news. This is… not the case.

It may be odd to read a news website saying that news is over-valued, but in the context of Bill C-18 and large news publications trying to end freedom of the press, we aren’t exactly in normal times here. Additionally, there is actually a very good reason for all of this.

One of the reoccurring themes that is notable from the backers of Bill C-18 is that they seem to think the whole world revolves around news. In fact, if you take some of those arguments at face value, everyone is hardcore into then news and that if your business is successful, it’s because your business is somehow associated with the news.

Even on face value, this argument is bizarre. If news is so valuable, then why are media businesses even struggling? This especially for the larger players like CBC, CTV, and Global. There are few doubting that all three have considerable reach across Canada. All three do utilize advertising and other services (such as streaming services). So, how is it that these organizations with this supposedly hugely valuable commodity with some of the best reach across the country, can’t make ends meet? Something between these two arguments don’t add up at all.

Already, the most basic level of scrutiny reveals inconsistencies with the backers of Bill C-18. There wasn’t even a need to dive deep into policy direction, understanding how subsidies work, knowledge of the Broadcasting Act or even the very nature of the news business. Yet, this critically flawed argument is one that is heavily used by the backers of this bill.

Indeed, for a considerable portion of the debate, large media organizations and backers of the bill claimed that Facebook and Google copied whole news articles, re-posted them on their platforms, slapped some ads on them, and made off with the money. Everything about that was a total lie. Facebook and Google do not republish whole articles as so enthusiastically claimed by the bills backers. In fact, lobbyist organization, FRIENDS, had no problem creating a whole advertising campaign based on this blatant lie:

Everything about this lie can easily be batted away with the simple mention of the Copyright Act. There is no need for a whole new bill if this was the problem in the first place. If platforms were well and truly republishing whole articles and making money off of it, then it is a simple case of filing a copyright infringement lawsuit against the platforms. In fact, publishers would have two avenues to pursue the platforms: The Canadian Copyright Act and the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Takedowns can be issued, statutory damages can be awarded. Debate over. Simple.

Yet, publishers never pursued the copyright angle. Why? They knew that their claims were false and they would have no hope in either court system for the simple reason that they would then have to prove their claims – claims that have, to date, absolutely no evidence to support it.

To put the final nail in the coffin of this argument, when it became clear that platforms were more inclined to block news links to Canadian news sources in Canada, the big media players suddenly changed their tune and screamed about how the platforms are now censoring them. You can’t have it both ways: either you want your content on the platforms or you don’t. You don’t get to argue both ways wherever it is most convenient.

Since then, the arguments have evolved to take on a more blurry and soft approach to things. Those arguments being that platforms derive “value” from news content that gets shared on their platforms (content that is frequently posted by the media outlets themselves, mind you). Therefore, they deserve to the compensated. It’s a bit like saying that the people who put up cork boards to allow for free advertising should be compensating the people who put up advertising. It’s complete and utter nonsense in and of itself, let alone the obvious case of fair dealing of news links and snippets that should really have ended this debate as well.

So, supporters of the bill tried to wiggle around, throwing everything against the wall in the hopes that something sticks. One effort was to say that people do use social media to read the news, therefore, it is incumbent on the platforms to pay licensing fees anyway. They further argue that without news links on the platforms, then people won’t be using the platforms.

The latter argument is often followed up with small snippets of data saying that a percentage of users use platforms like Facebook to read the news. There is a reason why supporters are always taking those small snippets out of the data, rather than offering the whole picture: the data is frequently cherry picked and taken out of context. When you look at the big picture of why people use Facebook, for instance. As we earlier highlighted, the data for why people use Facebook is quite clear: people use Facebook for communicating with one another. Often, they use it to also share memes or media that they, themselves, produced. News comes in at third – sometimes a distant third – for why people use Facebook. Compounding the issue, there are a whole pile of other reasons people use Facebook on top of it all.

The data is clear that people frequently use Facebook for a variety of reasons. Saying that because some people out there use it for reading the news, then claiming that this is the only reason Facebook is successful, is complete nonsense. This is where Bill C-18 backers greatly exaggerate the value of news on these platforms.

Yet, armed with this critically flawed thinking, the bills backers then wildly conclude that the platforms would never pull out of Canada or never drop news links for the simple reason that they are too dependent on news links to do something like that.

For experts, however, one statistic that is often cited, and rightfully so, is the fact that only 4 in every 1,000 posts on the main Facebook news feed points to a news link. Simply put, Facebook is moving further and further away from news – likely because it’s not really engaging enough. Combine that with the other reasons why people use Facebook, and the simple conclusion is that if news links were dropped altogether, it wouldn’t hurt them all that much.

There is very good reason why there is little to no evidence to suggest that Facebook would be critically harmed by dropping news links altogether. It’s simply not their main business. When examining this angle for why platforms succeed and fail, you have to look at how successful platforms succeed and fail. If you are looking at a very large platforms and why people use them, you can very easily rely on the basic principles human geographers use to explain why people migrate from one country to another. This is the basic principle of push and pull factors.

So, for example, why do people stick to something like Facebook? A big one is the fact that everyone they know is on there. If you are trying to leave the platform, it’s difficult to settle down into a new platform when all of your connections are on the old platform. A second big reason is familiarity. When you’ve used the same platform for years, it’s annoying to figure out the features of a brand new platform. It’s easier to stick to the same old, same old. A third reason people stick to the large platform is fear of the unknown. Can you really figure out all of these features and how a different designer put them together? Will you be able to connect with people you might enjoy communicating with? For some, that’s a big deterrent for moving away from one platform and relocating to another platform.

Facebook, however, has had its fair share of push factors. Whether it is the Cambridge Analytica scandal (and the political baggage of being the one that influences elections for the worse), the multitude of privacy scandals (such as data leaks and the insane amount of tracking it does on users), the toxic discourse of hyperpartisanship, and a multitude of other problems. Yet, at the end of the day, Facebook remains as one of the largest platforms anyway. People often don’t like using Facebook, but it ends up feeling like you have to anyway despite knowing the problems. Some do eventually leave, of course, but not to the point where Facebook seems to feel the need to significantly overhaul their operations to be healthier for the users.

There is, of course, one example where people are starting to exodus out of a large platform. That is, of course, Twitter. Since Elon Musk took over, there was the increase in hate speech, impersonations, firings, increased legal liability, censorship, and months of all around bad business decision making. Ultimately, you have to try hard to cause a large platform to fail, but it looks like Musk is doing a lot to make that happen. In response, Mastodon appears to be a big beneficiary of this. Defenders of the cesspool that is Twitter will try and say that a large number of users are still using Twitter. Indeed, large numbers are still using Twitter, but the bleeding of users is already happening. Give it enough time and Twitter will continue to fall further and further down into oblivion unless some miraculous thing happens to turn things around. You don’t cause something that big to fail overnight.

When you look at these two scenarios, one thing should be abundantly clear: moving people from one successful platform to another is extremely hard. Even when users have a huge list of reasons to leave, they so often stay and just take the abuse from those running the show. It can be done, but it actually takes effort.

Yet, Bill C-18 backers somehow believe that news is the only thing holding these platforms together. If platforms drop news links altogether, users would simply stop using the platforms and the platforms would go bankrupt overnight. To paraphrase some of the backers of the bill, ‘news links is just too lucrative to simply drop like that, therefore, the platforms saying that the would drop news links are just bluffing’. Simply put, news has no hope of being the straw that breaks the camels back for users.

The problem with trying to say that users use platforms to read news means that platforms are beholden to news organizations is the fact that the bills backers are asking the wrong people when they ask about the value of news. If you ask enough people, a good portion of them will say that they do read the news to find out what’s going on. This is easy to do. Where this runs into problems is trying to ask platforms whether news is the big reason they are successful. For them, the data is quite clear that news isn’t actually that important – and the importance for the platforms is dropping on top of it all.

Bill C-18 backers will look at that and insist that news is important to people, though. In order for the backers to be right, the loss of news links would have to mean that people will stop using the platforms altogether. Given all of the above, that is an extremely hard sell. Yes, some people will complain. That is obvious. Will people stamp their feet and leave en-mass? Probably not.

Some of the bills backers might say that they get a lot of traffic from Facebook, therefore, this disproves that. The problem with that defence is that this is the nature of a platform that is so huge. When you have a platform with billions of people, you are going to get some who might be interested in your content sooner or later. Indeed, many news organizations tie their success to Facebook and Google News. This ties nicely into the long held truth in these debates: publishers need platforms more than platforms need publishers. The best backers can hope for is that the move will cause some short term pain for them. This while news websites would be very badly hurt by the move – sometimes to the point of being what finally runs them out of business. This is absolutely not a sustainable tradeoff for those declaring war on the platforms.

A case can be made that news links is a “nice to have” for the platform, but the argument that news links is a “must have” just isn’t supported by data, the facts, or logic. As platforms see their profits drying up thanks to advertising revenues collapsing, that will only further motivate them to see going along with this an even more unlikely outcome.

At the end of the day, the bills backers are basically hoping for a total miracle that this gamble of pushing news links isn’t going to be fatal to their businesses. The odds are extremely long that the platforms would go along with this. The bills backers love to cite the platforms going along with the Australian model while conveniently forgetting that the platforms did drop news links in Spain years earlier to the dismay of the collapsing Spanish news sector. The financial picture for platforms since what happened in Australia has worsened. At this point, going along with the Canadian model is just throwing more good money after bad. The fact that other countries like the United States and the UK are considering similar demands means that the platforms would have even more reason to just stop linking to news altogether rather than take the financial hit for no real reason.

In a last ditch effort, the bills backers would argue at this point that Facebook and Google aren’t pulling out of the country altogether. No, they aren’t. They are just dropping news links, not exiting out of the country completely. Big difference.

Ultimately, the safe bet is to assume that Bill C-18 will likely get passed thanks to all the lobbying. Afterwards, the platforms drop news links altogether to Canadian sources in Canada. The Canadian media will flip their lid and the picture would be clear that they have shot themselves squarely in the foot. There will be a lot of harm as a result in the news sector, but the largest players will only have themselves to blame. What’s more, it’ll probably take, at minimum, months to clear up – likely years to finally rebuild that bridge that the large outlets are so intent on burning down today. It’s unlikely that it’ll end any other way.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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