Let Me Rewrite that For You: Canada’s Online News Act Explained

A news article published on CTV claims to explain the Online News Act. The problem is that it wasn’t that good at it.

Yesterday, we published an article noting the decision by mainstream media outlets to refuse to run ads. In it, we explained that while it is well within their right to make such a decision, the context of the publishers running disinformation about Bill C-18 for the better part of 3 years now made the move seem like petty vindictiveness, casting the media in a bad light. Over top of it, we noted how the move really re-ignited the debate about trust in the media when it comes to this debate.

Really, you don’t have to go far to find a lot of this disinformation pumped out by mainstream media. They have a business interest and they have been trying hard to convince audiences of their perspective rather than publish objective facts in the matter. Now, some die hard Bill C-18 supporter might argue that many of the examples are anywhere between a couple months old to multiple years old, but all of that, though proving a long track record of public harm, is in the past and there’s probably no way I could point to something that was recently published that furthers this point.

Well, truth be told, we got handed a pretty solid example of disinformation courtesy of Canadian mainstream media outlet, CTV. I will preface this by saying that what CTV published was not the worst I’ve seen in terms of blatant lying and disinformation, but it does nicely highlight one of the many trends media outlets try to trick readers into believing things that are not actually true or believing misleading information. This trend is known as fake “explainers” where an article purports to take a broad topic and explain the broad strokes of the legislation.

What makes explainers like this so convincing is that it does incorporate basic facts that are, in fact, accurate. This is intended to lure readers into a false sense of trust where if the first few statements are accurate, then the rest must be open and honest. As we found out, that is not exactly the case. The article in question can be read here for reference. Before we completely re-write the article, let’s dive into some of the things the article got right and what the article gets wrong.

What the Article Got Right

First of all, yes, the bill was, in fact, passed into law. A no brainer fact there.

Second, the article, well, sort of, got it right that Meta and Google does intend on blocking news links from being shared on their platforms. The article mistakenly calls it “news content” as it is commonly accepted knowledge that what is being shared are snippets, thumbnails, and links, not the articles in whole themselves.

Third, the article does get right, well, sort of, the fact that the bill does start coming into force by 180 days after June 22, which is December 19th. It’s actually a lot more nuanced then that as there are actually a number of paragraphs that talk about the bill coming into force where certain elements come into force on one timeline while other elements come into force at a different timeline. This is a bit of hair splitting, however, because the platforms have said that their actions will take place before the bill comes into force, so, really, that could be taken as pretty much any part of the bill triggering their decision. So, in a practical sense, it doesn’t make that much of a difference in the long run.

What the Article Got Wrong

Well, in short, a lot (hence the project to completely re-write this one). For example, this line:

This is a framework that Google and Meta have rejected, both stating they will instead be blocking Canadian news content.

The article goes to great lengths to use news links and “news content” interchangeably when, in fact, they are two completely different things. A link is what you see along the top of your web browser. It tells the browser where to access content (ala what domain to look up, which specific file should be accessed, etc.). Meanwhile, news content is the article itself. All the individual paragraphs you are reading right now is, in fact, “news content”. What is commonly shared are snippets, thumbnails, and links (perhaps some tags, etc.) In that sense, you could arguably call it a “preview” if you want to use a term other than link. Often, this confusion is intentional elsewhere, but regardless of intent or not, the use is inaccurate here.

Another example of what the article got wrong can be found here:

In brief, the tech giants don’t want to pay to host Canadian news content as required by C-18

(emphasis mine)

There’s no wiggle room or liberal use of terminology here, this is straight up false. First, there is no provision in the Online News Act (Bill C-18) forcing platforms to host links in the first place. Second of all, the platforms are actually not obligated to “pay to host” news links in the first place. As Heritage official, Thomas Owen Ripley, testified before the Canadian senate earlier this year, if platforms choose not to support news links, then they are not obligated to pay news organizations because the platforms have exited the market. This is the decision that platforms have made clear that they intend on doing.

Another great example is this:

The federal government says the bill is to help the Canadian news industry, which has seen falling subscriptions and ad revenue over time as those profits shift to Google and Facebook.

At best, this is an extremely misleading statement. It assumes that Google and Meta are solely to blame for the downfall of the media in Canada. This is absolutely not the case as there have been numerous reasons for the decline in journalism in this country. One great example is the continued consolidation of the media sector which has led to fewer players and massive layoffs. Exacerbating the problem is the “vertical integration” of the sector with other sectors. It was only in recent years that an ISP also happens to own a large journalism outfit. This has led to little investment in journalism as for-profit minded CEO’s focus their investment efforts on what they consider to be profit making enterprises (spoiler: it isn’t journalism).

Another source of the media woes has been the shift in flyer distribution. In years past, the media had received huge amounts of revenue from the distribution of flyers. However, as readership declined thanks, in part, to massive consolidation, those producing those flyers sought a better business partner in this. That ended up being mail distribution, or more specifically, Canada Post. This shift alone has eaten away at the profits of newspapers.

Additionally, how often do you see coupons in the newspaper for large big retail chain stores? Not as often as it used to be in in years past. The retail sector has shifted focus from coupons in the paper to rewards programs that are entirely contained within the retail organization. This has also chipped away at profits as newspapers suddenly start seeing fewer and fewer opportunities to run those.

Then, there is a much bigger hit in the media with the loss in revenue in classifieds. In years past, people would post things like ads for apartments for rent, obituaries, selling possessions, and a whole lot more. You got things like Craig’s List, Kijiji, and, of course, social media filling that role. Why spend the money on space announcing a wedding or a funeral when you can post that stuff up for free on Twitter or even Facebook for that matter? Again, that also ate at the newspapers revenue.

Over top of that is the continual decline of people consuming traditional news in the first place as trust in the media continues to decline. More and more people are “cutting the cable” because there just isn’t anything worth watching any more. This combined with the fact that YouTube, more often then not, has more relevant and interesting stuff that is on demand. With the constant rise in cable TV subscriptions, many increasingly cash strapped consumers are asking, “what’s the point?” If consumers are turning away from these mediums, then it becomes harder to convince advertisers to go with traditional outlets when the audiences have moved elsewhere.

This is far from a comprehensive list of reasons, but this does showcase that there is actually a host of reasons for the decline in journalism that go well beyond the tired old ‘platforms taking our ad revenue’ line we so often here.

We’ll mention one more thing that the article got wrong. This has to do with the section of what the criticisms are of Bill C-18. Despite criticisms coming from a huge array of perspectives, the article focuses almost exclusively on Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, saying that Bill C-18 will lead to the controlling of the media. This with a small side note from one commentator who worried about media literacy if news links is blocked on social media. The section completely misrepresents not only why people are opposed to the bill, but who is opposed to the bill. This is straight up the media trying to distort reality and make people believe that it’s just the Conservative Party whiney spoiled brats when opposition actually came form all corners of the Canadian landscape.

Fixing the Article

There is so much that is wrong with the article that there is no point in trying to tweak language to make the article accurate. A full re-write is in order here. We’ll try and keep as much of the basic structure as possible, but in order to produce something that is accurate, the content has to largely be thrown out altogether.

Also worth pointing out that this is not an exercise in trying to humiliate on particular reporter (because there is a LOT of guilt to go around when it comes to the crime of passing off biased propaganda as “professional” journalism in a major publication). This just happens to be the nearest example that I was able to pick up and offer as an example of a sub-trend among the large media companies.

What’s more, this is not an exercise in running a political attack on the media. If you are reading this expecting that some Conservative is just complaining about what was being said in a news article and trying to lick the boots of a political party. This is an exercise in getting reworking an article and making it accurate.

So, with that, let’s begin.

Introductory Paragraphs

After a heated debate throughout the bills progression, Bill C-18 has passed into law. As a result, it is now known as the Online News Act. The bills passage comes in the context of other countries in the process of passing their respective versions of this law including the UK and the State of California in the United States.

International experience with such laws have been mixed. The more often cited international version of the bill is the Australian News Bargaining Code which passed in Australia in 2021. While platforms did threaten to pull services from the country, a last minute deal with the platforms meant that Meta and Google would not be designated in exchange for signing deals with a handful of players in the country. Years earlier, Spain passed similar laws, but in response, Google News in that country was pulled, decimating the media sector in that country due to a massive drop in traffic and, consequently, revenue.

That leads us to today where a similar battle is shaping up in Canada. Before Bill C-18 passed, Meta said that they will respond by dropping support for news links. Shortly after the bills passage, Google followed suit announcing that it, too, would drop support for the sharing of news links. Though the full effect of the news links blocks haven’t taken affect yet, the platforms have said that they would take those steps before the legislation comes into force – something that the Canadian government has said would happen later this year.

What is Bill C-18?

The Online News Act (formerly Bill C-18) creates an obligation for large platforms to pay news publishers should news links appear on their services. Should a large platform choose to continue to offer the ability to share news links, the new law would require platforms to negotiate licensing deals for the privilege of continuing such services.

While the platforms would need to negotiate licensing deals with publishers should those platforms continue hosting news links, this isn’t the platforms only option. Should the platforms choose to simply no longer permit the sharing of news links on their platforms, then the government deems those platforms to have exited the news media market, thus negating any requirement to negotiate deals or pay licensing fees.

This is an option available to platforms because there is no requirement that says platforms must permit the hosting news links. With the platforms appearing to move in this direction, media executives have become increasingly frustrated because there is no stopgap to shrinking revenues – something they expected to have with this new legislation.

Who does Bill C-18 affect?

According to the government, Bill C-18 affects Google and Facebook. Projections suggest that two thirds of all revenue that they hoped would come from the legislation would come from Google while the remaining one third was hoped to come from Facebook. During a Senate hearing before the Transport and Communications (TRCM) committee, Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, said that other platforms are too distant in terms of reach for consideration.

On the other side, the news publishers who are qualified under Section 27 would also be affected. The bill splits eligible news organizations into two groups. The first group are news organizations that are designated under “subsection 248(1) of the Income Tax Act”. So, largely news organizations that have business licenses and are qualified under various journalism subsidy programs.

The second group offers a more general set of rules to allow a news organization to qualify anyway. Those rules are generally the following:

  • “regularly employs two or more journalists in Canada”
  • “operates in Canada, including having content edited and designed in Canada”
  • “produces news content that is not primarily focused on a particular topic”
  • “is either a member of a recognized journalistic association and follows the code of ethics of a recognized journalistic association or has its own code of ethics whose standards of professional conduct require adherence to the recognized processes and principles of the journalism profession”

As long as a news organization satisfies the requirements of either group, then they are eligible. The second group requires an organization to comply with all of the above points before they are eligible.

A later amendment added a third group which is a news organization that “operates an Indigenous news outlet in Canada and produces news content that includes matters of general interest”. This amendment was brought about after calls to have the rules more relaxed for Indigenous news organizations from certain indigenous groups.

When does the Online News Act go into effect?

The government has stated that the legislation will take effect 180 days after June 22nd which would be, at latest, December 19th of this year. Different elements of the legislation will come into force at different times, but that is the date that the government has in mind for when this legislation effectively comes into force.

How have tech giants reacted?

Meta and Google have stated that in order to comply with the new law, they will be ending support for news links. Meta has said that the legislation doesn’t recognize the reality of how content is posted on their platforms. Additionally, the platforms have cited the problem of uncapped liability, meaning that there is no limit to how much they would be required to pay publishers in order to continue supporting the sharing of news links on their platforms.

The government, for its part, has issued what it called “clarifying” language, watering down some of the elements in this new law. Meta, however, rejected this, saying that they are moving ahead with the news links blocking. Google, however, has not publicly said one way or another how they are reacting to this latest offer by the government to keep them on board with this law.

Both Meta and Google have said that any content that is designated under the new law as requiring compensation would be affected by the news links blocking. In fact, they went further by saying that content like audio or video content may also be affected by this. In short, if it’s within the scope of the new law, then it would no longer be allowed on their platforms.

Meta, for its part, is currently conducting tests on Instagram, affecting a portion of their users. As a result, some news organizations have been locked out of their own accounts, marking a surprising escalation of exactly what would get blocked in the first place. Currently, the testing on Instagram is ongoing and could affect anyone at any time as who is affected is chosen at random.

Does this mean Canadians won’t have access to news websites at all?

No. The news links decision only affects services operated by Google and Meta. If you perform a search for a Canadian news organization, their news links will not be displayed. Likewise, news links to eligible news organizations under this new law will also no longer appear on your Facebook feed.

Canadians, however, can still access these news websites by typing in the main websites URL directly. For instance, if you type in “cbc.ca” in your browser, you’ll still access the news organization in question. Additionally, apps, including third party apps, will still have access to the news articles in question. Google and Meta do not have the power to “block access to news” outright.

What are supporters saying about the Online News Act?

Before Meta and Google announced that they would be ending support for news links to Canadian news sources, news organizations and lobby groups representing news organizations have accused the platforms of “stealing” news articles and republishing the articles in whole on their platforms and profiting off of it without permission. An example of this is lobby organization FRIENDS who created an advertisement campaign accusing Meta founder, Mark Zuckerberg of “theft” of news content. However, those claims have remained unfounded as no one has been able to produce any evidence proving the allegations of the republication of whole articles without permission.

After Meta and Google announced that they would end support for the sharing of news links, supporters claimed that the platforms are “censoring” the media, contradicting earlier claims that they were unhappy with the sharing of news links in the first place. This contradiction has been long called out by critics as the supporters trying to have it both ways.

Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, has insisted that this is bill is just about putting a table between the two parties and have accused the platforms of “bullying” tactics. However, the Minister has also admitted that the decision to drop news links is also a valid business decision on the part of the platforms.

Others have been vocal in their news reporting and opinion pieces saying that the bill is necessary for their survival, accusing the platforms of being solely to blame for their respective losses in readership and ad revenue. However, evidence suggests that the backsliding in revenue for media companies started long before Facebook became profitable in the first place. Others have pointed out the rapid consolidation of the news sector, flyer distribution being offloaded to Canada Post, retailer rewards program replacing coupon programs, the CBC competing with the private sector for ad revenue despite receiving over $1 billion in additional government subsidies, and a general loss in viewership to explain some of the losses in the sector.

Some supporters, typically some of the smaller news players, have worried that the legislation favours the largest players and have called for a more fair formula to better support their operations. The fear for them is that players like them in the sector would get left with “crumbs” while the largest players in the sector get a much larger piece of the revenue pie. Those calls for a more across the board approach and ensure fairness in the system between smaller and larger players have gone unanswered. This, of course, assumes that the platforms continue the support of news links in the first place – which all indications so far suggest that they will not.

A few supporters have been more militant in saying that without this bill, news rooms will die and cause massive closures. However, some senators, including Senator Paula Simons, have noted that if the platforms drop news link support, then not only will the publishers get nothing financially, but also get cut off from their respective audiences that might still be on those platforms in the first place.

What are the criticisms of the Online News Act?

There have been numerous criticisms levied against the Online News Act. Those criticisms have come from all sides of the debate.

One of the criticisms, which was touched on by a supporter of the legislation, FRIENDS, is a general lack of transparency. The new law says that a report of how much the deals signed would be worth be released once a year. This is not good enough for both critics and supporters as such a report does not ensure that the money is actually going towards the funding of journalism. The fear is that if the deals move ahead, then the money would go to hedge fund managers and wealthy CEO’s trying to pad quarterly reports for investors rather than invest that money into the generation of journalism.

Another criticism generally aimed at the new law by smaller news publishers and critics alike is that a disproportionate amount of money will be going towards the largest players. Supporters have long contended that this new law is about bringing on board the smaller players, however, all signs point to the fact that the largest players will get a much larger piece of the revenue pot while smaller players get little to no revenue. This criticism is backed up by data released by the Parliamentary Budget Officer who concluded that 75% of all the revenue that is set to come from these deals would be distributed among the largest players in the industry, leaving the numerous smaller players to split the remaining 25% of the money.

Critics like University Law Professor, Michael Geist, pointed out that there is no legal basis for which news links require compensation. Under general copyright law, references to other material has never required compensation in and of itself. This is thanks to what is known in Canadian law as Fair Dealing. Geist and many other critics have pointed out that linking, snippets, and thumbnails is arguably an activity that falls under Fair Dealing.

More troubling is that such a law would violate Canada’s international trade obligations such as the Berne Convention and the Canada US Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), inviting potential trade retaliation from the United States. The United States, in its communications with Canada, have been vocal about their concerns that the Online News Act, along with the Online Streaming Act and the Digital Services Tax unfairly targets American businesses, thus eliciting potential trade retaliation in response in the form of potentially billions in trade tariffs against Canada.

Additionally, experts like Geist and former CRTC Commissioner, Peter Menzies, has pointed out that there are probably better ways of compensating journalists without the potential for news link blocking. Alternatives include rethinking how the CBC receives funding or a fund model where platforms pay a certain amount into a pot of money (with having that money be then redistributed to a set number of players afterwards). In fact, the platforms were actually supportive of this idea. Lawmakers, however, largely ignored this avenue when passing this legislation.

Other critics representing independent media, such as Jeff Elgie of Village Media and James Brown of Canadaland, have expressed concern that the platforms would likely respond to this legislation by dropping news links in Canada during their senate appearances. Elgie has since noted that his company is now no longer expanding as one of the biggest sources of traffic to their websites may no longer be a means of informing people of their presence.

Some independent sources that do not have a presence on these platforms have also worried that their competitors will be receiving an unfair market advantage by receiving funding from these deals. One such source has said that if their competitors are receiving additional financial compensation for having a presence on Google and Meta, then that puts their businesses at a financial disadvantage, forcing them to find ways of making a presence just so they can compete with their rivals in the sector by receiving the same deals as them.

More broadly, critics have pointed out that if the platforms follow through with their plans to drop news links support, then everyone involved suffers. Many news organizations would lose access to a significant source of their revenues while smaller players could be faced with closures as their cash strapped operations may not be able to withstand such a financial hit. This, according to critics, would result in a loss of journalism positions and increase the problem of news deserts in this country.

The Global Impact of the Online News Act

One thing that many people seem to agree on in Canada is that this legislation has international implications. For critics, the worry is that if other countries were to follow suit with similar bills, then the platforms would be compelled to pay an increasing amount of money to publishers internationally. This, for critics, could greatly increase the cost of supporting news links on platforms. As a result, the platforms could be motivated by not only the potential message the Online News Act could send, but also the increasing liability. Some supporters do agree, at least, with the point that not supporting news links could be the platforms sending a message to other countries saying that similar bills could result in what happens in Canada with respect to how the platforms intend on reacting.

In the US, the California variation has been delayed to next year. It’s unclear if the events in Canada even plays a role in the calculus of such a move, but it seems that passage of one bill has been pushed back until after the Online News Act takes effect – enough time to learn what the ultimate decision is for platforms in Canada.

The Future of the Online News Act

Though the legislation is now law, the future of the legislation has only brought more uncertainty in the news sector. With questions still lingering if the government can find some way to avert the dropping of news links on platforms and just how much the potential damage would run deep if the platforms not back down, a bill that was supposed to bring in certainty to the news sector is proving to be something that delivers anything but.

It is still unclear when the news links blocks will actually happen, it is known that it will happen in a period of time between now and just before Christmas. Who will be impacted by such a decision and how far the blocking will go is something that only the platforms are aware of at this point in time. The Canadian government has openly contemplated large news media bailouts to news organizations affected, but who gets that financial help and for how long will Ottawa pay news publishers is very unclear at this point. What is clear is that this is not the outcome those supporting this legislation were hoping to see.

Conclusions of the Re-Write

Indeed, we were able to maintain much of the structure of the article while completely re-writing it from the ground up. The end result is what we feel to be a much more accurate and informing article. There were some sections that had to be deleted altogether as it made no sense to have them in there unless you are trying to go for a messaging style. Obviously, we are professionals, so it made no sense to have them in there. We did add a small section towards of the global implications because it is very much relevant to the discussion of the new law. It’s actually surprising that such a section wasn’t in there in the original article.

What’s more, while re-writing the article, we did notice that some sections never actually bothered to answer the questions set out in the heading. For instance, the original section asking who is affected by the legislation didn’t actually answer the question. In fact, half of the answer was shoved to a later section. Obviously, that made no sense, so that answer was moved to the proper section. What’s more, the list who is eligible wasn’t even complete in the first place. Obviously, we had to provide a more complete explanation of who is eligible. The answer was not that hard to find as all it required was reading Section 27 which is… really straight forward. How the reporter managed to screw up such a basic level of reading comprehension is pretty mystifying to me.

As I went through the real criticisms of the bill, it became more and more apparent that the journalist simply didn’t do her homework on that. There’s mountains of sources out there documenting what the criticisms of the bill were. Only one of them was passively mentioned at the end of the section and what was there did a poor job of explaining what the criticism at all. Also, largely relying only on tweets posted by Poilievre? Really? You call that “research”? What is wrong with you? At the very least, do your freaking job and actually do some proper research first. We’ve had whole hearings on this stuff and you pick that as your source? That’s just embarrassing.

Anyway, hopefully you got something out of my re-write. At least you know this version was produced professionally. I don’t honestly expect anything to change among mainstream “journalists” on this subject as it’ll continue to be rife with a mixture of amateur hour, incompetence, and bad faith disinformation as we continue on. In the mean time, consider this article to be written properly now.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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