Newspaper Unity in Push for Link Tax Collapsing in Canada

The united push for a link tax in Canada might be collapsing as newspapers appear to be going separate ways.

It might be more difficult to get a federally mandated link tax in Canada. Big corporate publishers have been pushing for the link tax for some time. The idea, of course, is as bogus as the day it was pushed in this country as it is today. Generally, a link tax means that the source demands a fee for the privilege of other sites to link to them. The concept is, of course, as backwards as it is destructive. Linking is the building blocks of the web itself. By demanding a fee for linking pretty much attacks one of the Internet’s core infrastructures.

Big publishers, however, care not about anything related to not destroying the Internet – or any form of common sense for that matter. Unmitigated greed propelled them to make these demands as they seek to widen their profit margins. With COVID-19 hitting ad revenue across the board, some voices decided to combine their opposition to so-called “big tech”, opposition to the Internet as a whole, and shrinking profit margins, and mix it all down into a toxic assault on the free and open Internet. Consequences be damned.

Making matters worse is the fact that the legacy corporations also have an ally within the halls of government: Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault. Guilbeault has, over the last few years, become the front man for all things war on the Internet. Whether it’s concocting an online harms bill that no Internet website has a hope in following or cracking down on user generated content, no plot to undermine the Internet seems to be a bridge too far for the minister.

So, when Guilbeault’s shoulder was tapped to try and implement a link tax, he effectively moved all in and called the lack of a link tax “immoral“. Large corporate publishers, obviously, backed this by ejecting their own credibility and launching massive coordinated disinformation campaigns. Those campaigns pushed the false narrative that linking is akin to stealing content and that big tech was not paying for it.

Obviously, a link or reference is very much fair dealing. Snippets and thumbnails also falls under those same dealing provisions. News aggregators and social media platforms drive large quantities to sources, thereby driving up the sources subscriptions and ad revenue in the process. For some sites, an occasional link on the more prominent pages of social media platforms is how the site survives in the first place. With facts conflicting with the newspapers disinformation, some newspapers decided to double down and push the disinformation harder. In the process, many sources took huge credibility hits.

The situation, though, was looking bad. With the government pushing for a link tax and publishing industry turned propaganda machine moving full steam ahead, the threat was that common sense of any kind was going to fail to prevail on this one.

In the midst of all of this, Google and Facebook took the eyebrow raising approach of entering into negotiations with some of those publishers. In May, those negotiations appeared to bear fruit for those who actually decided to show up at the negotiating table. From a Global report at the time:

Facebook unveiled a plan Tuesday to pay some Canadian publishers for news stories on its platform, but experts say the move diverts attention from forthcoming regulation efforts.

The California-based tech giant said it will pay 14 publishers, including the National Observer, FP Newspapers, Le Devoir, the Tyee and the publisher of Le Soleil undisclosed amounts to link to their articles on its COVID-19 and climate science pages or in other unspecified use cases.

Deals made under the news innovation test program were also reached with the Coast, the Narwhal, Village Media, the SaltWire Network, the Sprawl, Discourse Media, Narcity, BlogTO and Daily Hive.

Facebook would not disclose the value or structure of the deals, and would not say if other publishers were approached for the project. It says the program will be multi-year in scope and does not include payments for news links already posted on Facebook by publishers.

In the time since, this deal has exposed a huge crack in the unity between various publishers. Specifically, those who chose to try and work out a deal versus those who chose to wait it out and get action from the federal government. This crack in this front has not gone unnoticed. From the Globe and Mail:

What has been the response, then, to the news that Facebook and Google have each signed deals with Canadian publishers for content – a 14-publisher agreement with Facebook announced in May, followed by a similar deal with eight publishers, including The Globe and Mail, unveiled last month? More outrage.

What’s needed is an “industry-wide solution,” fumed the chairman of Postmedia, Andrew MacLeod, whose organization was a part of neither deal – by which he meant legislation imposed upon the platforms, and presumably the publishers, forcing the former to negotiate with the latter.

Indeed, Mr. MacLeod seemed as exercised by those publishers who, deserting their industry brethren (i.e. Postmedia), had signed side deals with FacebookGoogle as he was with the alleged content thieves themselves.

“I respect the right of all companies to be doing what’s in their self-interest,” he seethed, “and I understand the financial pressure that some players feel and the urgency they feel relative to creating more certainty in their financial environment” – I feel a but coming on – “but I think that speaks to the need for the government to enact the promised legislation.”

His fellow suit, Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor, the country’s largest journalists’ union, was as usual blunter. “They better get it done,” he mused, menacingly, noting there was an election coming. He accused the breakaway publishers of “panicking,” and thus undermining the kind of “solidarity” that “forces governments to react quickly.”

While there may well be infighting between the publishers at this stage, there may very well be hope for the holdouts hoping that the federal government will still push the link tax legislation. With the election campaign not and election campaign marching ahead in Canada, the polls are showing that the Liberals have a good chance to get a majority government. With Guilbeault being the current anti-Internet crusader possibly continuing on as Heritage Minister (we all hope that is not actually going to be the case), there is a strong possibility that a link tax could still be on the horizon.

So, while the divisions between newspapers forming might knock some of the wind out of the push for the link tax, that doesn’t mean that a federally mandated link tax is dead by any means. At the same time, it is a sign that there could be one less threat to the open Internet in Canada at large. A new small ray of hope if you will. Hopefully, that hope won’t be dashed at a future time.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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