“I’m Not Paid By Big Tech” is How Far the Online News Act Debate Has Sunk

Anyone daring to publicly criticize the Online News Act have increasingly had to resort to increasingly insane comments just to get a word in.

Yesterday, I wrote an article on what seemed to be a waste of time hearing on the Online News Act and the Online Streaming Act. The hearing was packed with politician’s who seemed to want to whine and throw temper tantrums that they aren’t getting their way. Obviously, platforms dropping news links is perfectly within the bounds of the Online News Act. Either platforms pay news publishers for the privilege of allowing them to post links on their platforms or they drop news links. Those are two perfectly legal choices. No matter how many times supporters falsely claim that dropping news links is an effort to subvert the law, no one has been able to explain what law platforms would be breaking by doing so.

The hearing was notable not only for accomplishing exactly nothing, but also because it highlighted in clear detail the mindset the Canadian government had at the time. Even 21 days out, the Canadian government continues to be militant that their backwards thinking about how copyright law and fair dealing works is how the world works… even though that is not how the world works by any stretch of the imagination. What’s more, it showed that the government doesn’t really care about the consequences of the Online News Act and is perfectly willing to allow countless smaller publications to be sacrificed just to service the governments ego.

Another thing I noted in the hearing was the fact that one of the few voices of reason in the room at the time, university law professor, Michael Geist, had to begin his statements by pointing out that he is not paid by “Big Tech” because his opinions are not for sale. The fact that he even had to say that in the first place is absolutely stunning. People like myself who have followed his work over the years would know this to be blatantly obvious.

Geist is not heavily supportive of one political party over another. Instead, like myself, he analyzes various government policies with how such policies and laws relate to the internet. He had no problem criticizing the Paul Martin Liberal government for its push of mass surveillance and terrible copyright reform and he didn’t hesitate to criticize the Stephen Harper Conservative government when they, too, pushed for warrantless wiretapping laws and equally bad copyright reforms during the early years of the Conservative government.

Yet, despite such a massively long track record of objectively assessing how the law impacts the internet for many many years (longer than I’ve been a journalist even), it seems like such things were swept away and forgotten. Instead, people like Geist, myself, and many others, have been routinely painted with a massive brush of being “Big Tech” “shills”. To put it another way, if you dared to criticize anything about the governments legislative direction with respect to the internet, then the overwhelming conclusion by the government and their hardcore backers is that you are now “one of them” – paid by these evil monolithic tech giants to sway debate in a direction that suits the interests of these foreign platforms that are apparently trying to destroy Canadian democracy.

While Geist having to point out that he is not a paid shill is certainly noteworthy, he is far from alone. Off and on, I felt the need to include pointing out the fact that I’m not paid for by any “Big Tech” platform while I write the coverage of this. Multiple panellists in a recent MacDonald Laurier webinar also felt the need to announce that they, too, are not part of some grand conspiracy to overthrow democracy at the behest of these tech giants. This thanks to relentless accusations that say how you are for everything the government is pushing for in the legislative processes or you are against Canada. There was no such thing as independent researchers or observers pointing out flaws. It was just a “you are either for us or against us” environment.

In a vacuum, this kind of political environment is quite remarkable. Indeed, during the Harper Conservative years, the Canadian government had developed a reputation of more or less ruling with an iron fist. The Prime Minister was seemingly the position where all the decisions are made and those decisions were final. If funding got cut because the Prime Minister decided, that was the end of the debate. It was up to other government officials to simply carry out those marching orders rather than assessing the impacts such decisions would have.

So, when Trudeau came into power, vowing “sunny ways” and an open and transparent government, Canadians were looking forward to a government that actually listens and not dictate. Yet, fast forward to today and the criticisms Harper faced all those years ago have become the criticisms that have been fairly attributed to this government. Trudeau’s government has become one that dictates and not listens. Only people with close ties to the government can have an influence on policy direction. Everyone else are either vocal supporters of whatever cause the government is pushing or obstacles to be taken down. Different political party, identical problems.

Yet, these attitudes of the federal government didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, when Trudeau was sworn into government, there was a very public push for more durable laws surrounding network neutrality, privacy reform (which is a concept that is universally supported), and even a vague “Digital Charter” to support Canadian’s as they navigate our digital world. For a brief time, it was a convincing sell that the days of the government being anti-internet were finally over and we were seeing innovation actually embraced as a net positive for this country.

Then, the lobbyists came swarming like vultures. Once they went back to work in the halls of government, that goodwill eroded as widely supported internet policies were seemingly shelved one after another. A digital charter? Never heard of it. Privacy reform? Pssh, who has time for that? Network neutrality? Who the who with the what now? Really, it’s quite remarkable that the right to repair legislation somehow survived this massacre of goodwill.

This was, obviously, replaced with the laws that are threatening the Canadian future. The Online Streaming Act, the Online News Act, and even a still forthcoming Online Harms proposal. This three pronged approach to cracking down on the internet was crafted to ensure that if your online business idea or innovative concept somehow survived one, it would get killed off with another. The Online News Act and the Online Streaming Act were designed to basically ensure that new and emerging players would get strangled to death while trying to preserve the past by letting legacy players feast on the carcass of Canadian innovation.

The debates shifted to be more sinister over time. At first, the Online Streaming Act and the Online News Act were just bills where the Canadian government had clearly gone off the rails and needed people to explain to them how the internet operates today. As time went on, the government grew more militant. For the Online Streaming Act, digital first creators were happy to explain how they have succeeded in the online environment only to get pushed back by government officials gaslighting them or a barrage of insults – some of which simply dismissed the very real concerns of creators by proclaiming that creators are just misguided or wrong and should have their concerns ignored.

Some even went so far as to accuse online innovative creators of being “not art”, little more than “cat videos”, or even the threat to get those innovators to be subject to “investigations” for the crime of criticizing the then bill. For the government, it became a mission to stand firm and say the lives of online innovators don’t matter and make it clear that their careers were about to be absolutely shredded.

The Online News Act came shortly after. Right as digital first creators were grieving the loss of their livelihoods, online news outlets like Freezenet found themselves fresh on the chopping block. The Canadian government was repeatedly warned over and over again that a link tax would only lead to every publication to have their news links blocked on Meta platforms and Google. Experts were, again, on hand to validate these comments just like they were when they pointed out the critical flaws of the Online Streaming Act. In response, anyone criticizing any of this was dismissed as “not news“, or shills for Big Tech. As such, anyone not concluding that the governments legislative efforts were holy and just and without question perfect in every way were subject to bullying behaviour, harassment, accusations that they want to see the demise of traditional media outlets, spiked editorials, and more – even as online news innovators face the imminent demise of everything they worked hard to build over the last several months or even the last several years (as is the case for myself).

This is not something that bodes well for the inevitable Online Harms debate. While critics of similar laws have faced accusations of being somehow supportive of child pornographers (thanks Vic Toews for that insane comment) in the past, seeing the above two debates unfold, the chances that this third debate going any better is looking pretty slim. Thanks to the potential of being delisted from Google thanks to the Online Streaming Act, trying to document such a debate is going to be incredibly difficult in the first place.

Adding to the problems in this increasingly toxic debate is the fact that the Online Streaming Act and the Online News Act have been very much indefensible. A case for trying to jam a square broadcasting regulatory framework into an internet round hole was never made. There was no evidence to suggest that Canadian culture was somehow drowning in the digital world (and there was ample evidence to suggest it was actually flourishing instead). The Online Streaming Act offered no guarantee that Canadian culture would be better off with the bill. Further, there was never a case for why it would help fulfill the mandates in the Broadcasting Act for digital first creators to have their content downranked in favour of legacy content creators that may or may not even have an interest in the online environment in the first place.

The Online News Act was equally indefensible. No one has ever found any evidence that platforms republished news content without the publishers permission (ala “scraping” argument). The Act fails to address the immediate concerns of competition in the news sector (arguably, it kills off new startups in favour of legacy corporations often backed by hedge funds). There was never a case that platforms like Facebook and Google were solely to blame (or even remotely related to) for the decline of traditional media outlets. There is no precedent in copyright law where referencing material is a compensible activity in Canada. What’s more, whatever accusation there was that platforms relied on news content to keep their platforms afloat has been completely obliterated by Meta’s actions and Google’s seemingly inevitable action of dropping news links altogether.

Simply put, there is no case to be made that says either the Online Streaming Act or the Online News Act was necessary or even well thought out. There is ample evidence to suggest that they would backfire whether through Canadian players being negatively impacted by the consequences of the two laws, potential trade sanctions from the United States, or even the seemingly inevitable Charter challenges that are likely still in the pipeline once the CRTC carries out the marching orders of the cultural and business elite in their “consultation” process.

So, the question is, what is a backer of either of the two laws to do when there is no way to defend the two new laws? It left only one remaining choice: attack the critics. Without any real means of pounding the law or the facts, as lawyers like to say, the only option left is to pound the table. Nothing is off the table. Whether it is politically motivated “investigations”, belittling those who bring forward good points in the debates, or outright censoring them in some cases, critics are to be targeted, tarred, and feathered for the blasphemous acts of trying to raise a point. It doesn’t matter who is making those points. It only matters that they were in some way delegitimized at minimum and unseen more ideally.

Taking all of this into account, the fact that we are here today with people increasingly feeling the need to reassure everyone that they are not part of some grand paid for conspiracy just to raise a point about the governments legislative direction wound up being a long time coming. It’s sad to see so little room for people who want to even raise neutral points in the debates, but we have, sadly, been building towards this moment for quite some time now.

To make matters worse, many large media corporations also have a vested interest in these debates and have not shied away from taking their collective journalism ethics codes and burned them as a sacrifice to what they feel is their corporate interests. That has been almost entirely replaced by borderline press releases from government or core lobbying groups who have been heavily lobbying for these bills from the very beginning. Smaller outlets like ours have been left to do the heavy real journalism lifting throughout (and believe me, nothing about that is easy by any stretch of the imagination).

It’s a bad situation and one that has little hope in improving any time soon. Lobby groups have been lining up at the CRTC, fighting over who gets more money from the platforms – comments that have long since spilled over into public hearings (shockingly unfiltered no less). Google dropping news links is likely going to happen in less than three weeks. The Canadian government is proving time and time again that the events that have unfolded are events they have learned nothing from. What’s more, the number of victims in all of this is not only already started to grow, but threatens to increase at a faster pace to boot. It does feel like an increasingly hopeless situation at this point.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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