Internet Society: Bill C-18 “Will be Harmful for the Internet”

The Internet Society has published a brief explaining why Bill C-18 will be harmful to the internet.

Earlier, we published a report showcasing Senator Paula Simons giving a speech on Bill C-18. In it, Senator Simons expressed skepticism that Bill C-18 is the right approach to alleviate many of the financial pressures facing the news industry today. Her speech obviously didn’t come out of a vacuum. After all, it follows waves of opposition towards the legislation.

Bill C-18, of course, is Canada’s link tax legislation. As we discussed in our analysis, it is a government mandate to force online platforms to pay license fees for the privilege of sending much needed traffic to news outlets after allowing those publishers to share links to their news organization on those platforms. The legislation bars small operations from ever receiving any form of financial compensation while demanding that links to those small news organizations be the subject of compensation. Put it another way, the government is mandating theft of smaller news outlets like Freezenet to prop up large corporations operating in the country.

So, for reasons that should be plainly obvious, smaller news outlets like Freezenet are opposed to this bill. As a result, it picks winners and losers in the online news market in the process.

Canadian consumers also have a right to be upset at this legislation. After all, Facebook has already credibly threatened to pull news links from Canada altogether should this bill go through. A threat that was paired with word that Meta laid off 13% of its workforce as part of cost cutting measures after seeing advertising revenue drop. As such, if they are part of a subset of users that get their news from platforms, then they will see that service get cut off altogether.

All this over top of the fact that Canadian consumers will invariably see a significant drop in the number of sources that exist for news. After all, when the government is picking winners and losers, there simply are going to be losers in the picture. Numbers released by the Heritage Ministery suggests that smaller outlets will individually receive very little in the way of financial compensation (even if platforms miraculously decide to just go ahead with this). This as the largest players like CTV and the Toronto star rake in a lions share of the revenue. This creates a powerful barrier to entry for new players. What’s more is that smaller players will get left out, whether this is decreased ad revenue thanks to platforms cost of doing business increasing, or getting blocked on platforms altogether – a death sentence for many players.

Of course, one of the things about legislation is that it brings viewpoints and perspectives from a wide variety of sources. It’s what makes following these issues so illuminating – especially when a proper hearing is involved (don’t look to the House of Commons for that, they don’t really provide such things). You simply aren’t going to cover every angle on a bill because there are too many ways such a bill can be looked at. Today, we are learning that a hearing isn’t necessary to get such feedback.

The Internet Society has released a brief on Bill C-18 and they conclude that the bill is, in fact, harmful to the internet. You can read the whole brief on their website and it is quite an enlightening read. Part of it reads as follows:

The Online News Act will hurt the Internet, and the people and businesses who rely on it, by:

  • Restricting innovation and growth of the digital economy by forcing users and businesses in Canada into a permission-based model that controls use of the Internet’s common language and address system, which runs counter to its fundamental design.
  • Reinforcing the market power of big players by creating barriers to entry and growth for Canadian businesses. The Act’s requirements make it unaffordable for start-ups and small businesses to use Internet technologies to become a challenger in the market, lest they find themselves subject to fines and forced into compensation bargaining with news companies.
  • Preventing people from access to private and secure lines of communication online. Market-power digital news intermediaries will be prevented from using strong encryption in order to put in place the content monitoring mechanisms needed to comply with the Act.
  • Stifling freedom of expression by restricting people in Canada from easily accessing and sharing information online.

If you are familiar with my coverage here on Freezenet, none of the above is exactly new. Many of these points are points I had already made earlier at one point or another. Still, this is a great summary of a number of criticisms towards the legislation.

Of course, as I hinted, the fun thing about different perspectives is that those different perspectives often find things others miss. This is like someone on one street seeing something in an intersection, then another person on another street seeing the same scene at the same intersection. One person might say that they saw significant damage in the front of one car while the other person might report that they only saw significant damage on the rear of the same car. It doesn’t make either perspective any worse than the other, but combined, you can get details that the other simply doesn’t see simply based off of where they are standing. Combined, you can get a much more well rounded picture.

In this case, the brief made the following assessment which I may have brushed on from time to time, but didn’t directly identify (that I could recall anyway):

3. Digital news intermediary:

This is defined as something that makes available news content that the intermediary did not produce itself. A digital news intermediary need not be in control of all the news content that is made available in its platform. For instance, a social media site that permits users to post URLs qualifies as a digital news intermediary, even though it is the social media site users that find and post the URLs. The Act asserts that it is the site that makes the news content available.

The text of the Act makes it clear that it is only supposed to apply in the case of very large intermediaries. These are entities that have substantial market power, and the Act does not apply to digital news intermediaries that do not have such power. However, “digital news intermediary” itself is defined in such a way that any operator of any website probably qualifies as one. The intermediaries covered by the Act are of some size, have some sort of strategic advantage over news businesses, and have a prominent market position. Unfortunately, the bill does not specify what size, advantage, or market position is necessary for its application, nor even the market within which the intermediary is to have power (see §6 of the Act).

The broad scope of potential digital news intermediaries renders difficult both self-identification and compliance. It is further complicated by their interplay with link shortening services, which will present a difficulty. Link shorterning services allow users to create a shorter version of a URL to make it easier to remember or share on character-restricted platforms. Link shortening services may not locate a specific piece of news content, but instead point to another URL that then locates the specific news content. Since some digital news intermediaries accept postings from their users, and some of those URLs might not link directly to news content, it is not clear which platform would be a digital news intermediary in many cases. Is any operator of a social media site responsible for determining the ultimate resource behind every URL (and therefore whether it is covered news content)? Alternatively, is it only the final intermediary (the one that provides the URL that ultimately points to the resource containing the news content) that is relevant for any given news content? And, if the shortening services are in fact digital news intermediaries, are they covered under the Act, or are they one of the digital news intermediaries that are not covered? It is impossible to tell from the text of the Online News Act. We might call the ones that are covered “market power intermediaries,” in order to distinguish them from all other digital news intermediaries in the world (this document does so henceforth).

Now, looking at Section 6 and we see the following:


6 This Act applies in respect of a digital news intermediary if, having regard to the following factors, there is a significant bargaining power imbalance between its operator and news businesses:

(a) the size of the intermediary or the operator;

(b) whether the market for the intermediary gives the operator a strategic advantage over news businesses; and

(c) whether the intermediary occupies a prominent market position.

After looking at that section, the Internet Society raises some very good points. With respect to Section 6 (c), what is a “prominent market position” according to the bill? Go ahead and CTRL+F “prominent” because this is the only time this word even comes up in the bill. This is not defined. Is a “prominent market position” meaning that the web service is the top three biggest websites on the entire internet? Does it have to have 100 billion uniques per year? What about 10 billion? How about user count? Does the website have to have 1 million user accounts or 100 million? The bill doesn’t say and it just seems to vaguely say that it has to be a big web service.

Further, who could theoretically count as an intermediary? With respect to Section 6 (b), this is also very ill defined and left vague. One interpretation you could come up with is that any internet website has “a strategic advantage over news businesses”. Take Freezenet, for instance. Freezenet publishes reviews of video games and music tracks. It’s how Freezenet has adapted the website to offer a better online service to end-users. However, many news businesses out there do not have video game reviews offered. As such, Freezenet could, by definition, have “a strategic advantage over news businesses”.

Of course, video game reviews wouldn’t be the only angle you can view things. How about the fact that a website is online at all? A news publisher that publishes print media may have good reach in a specific city or even an area of a specific city. However, an online news website, meanwhile, though it may not have the footprint in a specific area, can be accessed in many countries around the world at any given time. Because of the scope of audience that a website can reach, that could fall into the definition of “a strategic advantage over news businesses”.

Further, the Internet Society’s point about link shortening services is well taken. Trying to police URLs would be an impossible ask as it requires the inspection of every single URL that is posted on a website. I would further add that cached pages would also complicate matters as well given the volume of content that gets posted on these platforms every day. There is a lot to unpack here besides that, but either way, some really interesting points.

Another angle that I didn’t really consider are the privacy implications of link taxes. Personally, this is not an angle I really considered thanks to so many other huge problems with this bill. Additionally, I would be yet another person who would not necessarily think of privacy when talking about link taxes. However, the Internet Society did raise some good points here:


Privacy on the Internet is the ability of individuals and groups to be able to understand and control what information about them is being collected and how, and to control how this is used and shared. Privacy often includes aspects of anonymity, removing linkages between data, devices, and communications sessions and the identities of the people to which they pertain.

The Online News Act requires digital news intermediaries to account for the news content in their platforms. This could mean that the operators of such platforms would scan any user posting that might constitute making news content available. For end-to-end encrypted communications, this is impossible without undermining security and privacy for every user.

Whether private discussions among a group of people would constitute making news content available is unclear in the Act. However, presumably, there is a certain number of participants in such a discussion that would turn the private group into a public one. No threshold is defined. Platforms would almost certainly be unwilling to bear the risk that such group chats could create financial liabilities. Therefore, the protections of privacy-enhancing technologies, like strong encryption for group chats, may be disincentivized or unusable in Canada.

Indeed, if intermediaries are being asked to police their platforms, this would make end-to-end encryption an unlikely feature to roll out. As such, any form of encryption would be dissuaded, leading to less privacy for users online. This is something I can definitely see as well.

Some Bill C-18 supporters might look at this and say that the internet doesn’t work like a decentralized network like it used to because of Google and Facebook. The problem with those comments is that there are still some strong players in the market that are still disrupting things. Freezenet is definitely one. Mastodon would be another. In fact, if you think that the internet is just about Google, Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube, then I strongly encourage you to check out the map of the internet. You could spend hours just looking at all the different web services that are out there. What’s more, the Internet Society submission is quite clear that Bill C-18 would only discourage innovation and startups by increasing the cost of doing business in creating such new services.

The whole brief is definitely worth the read even if it is a rather long piece to wade through. It’s conclusions are something I agree with. So, if you missed the link further up, here it is again. It’s a good read.


Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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