Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Interview on the Online News Act is Chilling for Innovators

A Village Media outlet conducted an interview with Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. The Online News Act came up.

The Canadian media has been driving full speed ahead towards a cliff though the Online News Act (formerly Bill C-18). The Canadian link tax is already a partial failure with Facebook already ditching news links at the start of August. Despite the mass delusions of supporters kidding themselves about the situation, Facebooks traffic remained unchanged while user engagement for news media outlets on Facebook collapsed. To compound the point, Meta’s revenues continued to rise after the news link blocking while the news sector is increasingly witnessing shut downs and layoffs. It was almost as if Meta was telling the truth when it said that news content is highly replaceable. Who knew?

Compounding this is the fact that Google’s position as of last month is completely unchanged and that they will also end support for news links. Google, of course, is much more important for news websites traffic than Facebook and the combined dropping of Google and Facebook would be a complete disaster for the news sector.

There really is only one way to avert this disaster and that is the rescinding of the law. That is unlikely to happen since lobby groups are stupid enough to think they are in any way winning this debate and think it’s a smart move to demand larger payments from the platforms while the government, in their infinite arrogance, continued to insist that the new law is “necessary“. News Media Canada may have been one of the only prominent voices to finally realize that they may have made a mistake with this whole Online News Act (freaking duh!), but their realization that they are about to drive the whole sector over a cliff won’t likely be enough to avert catastrophe in the news sector.

So, as the news sector continues to speed towards the cliff, despite basic survival instinct finally kicking in for some, the government is basically doing their own impression of the Gas Gas Gas meme in the process, all but cementing the fate of the Canadian media.

More recently, Trudeau gave an interview with Village Media outlet, Timmins Today. They covered multiple topics, but one topic they did cover was the Online News Act. For full disclosure purposes, Village Media has been decidedly against this law for the obvious reason that they have a will to live as a business entity. This as seen during their appearance at the Bill C-18 senate hearing. So, they do have a tendency of showcasing working knowledge of how the internet really works and what the Online News Act really means to them. In short, they’re not idiots here.

The interview can be found here and it luckily features a transcript of what was said. The interview starts with this:

VM: I want to switch gears again to Bill C-18, the Online News Act. You’re in Sault Ste. Marie, which is the headquarters of the largest online publisher in the country: Village Media. I’m very privileged to be the editor-in-chief of Village Media, and we’re very concerned about C-18, obviously, as a lot of online publishers are. As everybody knows, Facebook has now blocked news content. Was this the right move, Prime Minister, Bill C-18?

JT: It’s a really difficult situation. And you know what better than I do. I think you have 19 communities you serve? Every single one of those communities deserves to have local journalists know their stories, who can put together and tell them what’s going on in their community and interpret what’s going on around the world in ways that is right for them. It’s not just nice to have. It’s core to the good functioning of our communities and of our democracy. Well-informed populations with access to local news, reliable, trusted local news is essential. So the fact that for years now, international companies, foreign companies like Facebook or Google, have been making money — massive amounts of money — off of the work that your journalists do talking about local issues, because anytime someone shares a relevant local story, Google or Facebook, depending on where they share it, makes the ad profit off of that, which doesn’t go into your pocket. It doesn’t doesn’t fund the work that the local journalist is doing. That is wrong. It shouldn’t be that way. So how do you do it? Well, what we’re trying to do is force Google and Facebook and other large companies that are so profitable on this, to pay their fair share, to share some of that ad revenue with companies that are creating that local news. We are having to push right now, and it’s worrisome because right now people don’t understand. ‘Look, we’ve got forest fires going and because of what the government’s doing, we’re not getting local news on our Facebook.’ That’s the perception but the reality is we’re doing this to force the online giants to support local media. Because if we don’t, as the world continues to change, will there be a Village in 10 years?

This portion of the interview definitely got off to a bad start. First of all, the talking point about how Facebook and Google is “making money” off of journalists is extremely misleading. The connection between platforms profits and news links appearing on those platforms is, at best, tenuous. That was clearly demonstrated in the lead up to this when Meta’s profits continued to rise after dropping Canadian news links. What’s more, media outlets put those news links on those platforms with the hopes of getting traffic to their websites after. Ultimately, the working relationship is that the publishers benefited greatly from that traffic and derived revenue from this activity. To suggest that platforms are taking from publishers and giving nothing back is completely false.

With that, the rest of Trudeaus talking points collapses. The comments of “pay their fair share” is based on talking points that have no merit.

Trudeau then went on to politicize the wildfires to score cheap political points. It does without saying that people died in those forest fires. For the Prime Minister to use those wildfires to score cheap political points is unbecoming of someone who holds any government office – let alone someone who holds the job of the Prime Minister. It’s completely disgusting and should be condemned for being, at minimum, in poor taste.

At the same time, he talks about how there is a perception that the Online News Act has caused news to be blocked on Facebook. That is a perception that is 100% completely accurate. If the Online News Act wasn’t adopted, Canadians would be able to continue sharing news links to this day. Demanding payments for referencing material has always been a completely ridiculous concept as it basically completely turns copyright law on its head and ignores how things like Fair Dealing worked for decades. Facebook, in this case, was completely in the right for dropping news links here. Trudeau’s counterpoint that he’s doing all of this to support the media is just gibberish nonsense.

Village Media, for their part, rightly pushed back and pointed out that organizations like Village Media actually derived a benefit for having their news links on platforms like Facebook:

VM: That’s what we’re concerned about right now. And I think we’ve learned the opposite is true: that we depended on Facebook and Google to help share our stories. There was value in that for us. Whereas some news organizations might have said what you’re saying is accurate, we believe the opposite. We were in partnership with Google and Facebook, they helped us, and now without them we’re hanging by a thread, Prime Minister. We’re worried about the future of our news organizations, and a lot of people are.

Trudeau quickly changed the channel and talked about vague “one-off” deals:

JT: But that’s why we’re working so hard with Google, in particular now, to find an agreement that is going to have Google actually not just help you in a one-off, but help you and other community journalists like your organization right across the country, with a model that’s going to be sustainable. Because we all know Google and Meta don’t want to have to be on the hook for this. They’re happy to try and help out in one-offs, but you can’t build a career on that. You’re not going to convince young people to go into journalism and be a local reporter if they’re not confident that they’re going to be able to support a family on that five years from now, 10 years from now. Look what’s happened to journalism over the past 10 years. We know it’s going to get stronger. So right now, countries around the world are looking very, very closely at what Canada’s doing, and telling us: keep doing it. Because if we don’t bring in a model, Australia showed that it can be done, bring in a model that actually makes sure that you get revenue sources you can rely on through the hard work you and your journalists are doing, then I worry, not just for local journalism, I worry for democracy. But I hear you how much it’s hard right now. We are there to support them in various ways but we’re also there to build a strong journalism that doesn’t rely on government handouts, because you’ve got to be calling us to account and you can’t have to know that a changing government might dry up your supply of funds. So we will always support local journalism, but I want to create an ecosystem that supports local journalism financially through the way people get their news now, which is sharing it, not buying a newspaper.

Uh, Trudeau, the reason people would be hesitant to go into journalism these days is because you pushed a law that is on the verge of decimating everyone’s careers in this field. It’s your law that caused this situation in the first place. It is your law that has me contemplating a completely different career path should things go south for my site. The platforms are making the only logical decision in response to such a terribly thought out law. It is ultimately your mess, not theirs.

Trudeau then hallucinated support from other countries. This is a talking point Trudeau made back in September and is seemingly repeating it here. There’s no reference to which countries are encouraging him to “keep doing it”. If anything, other countries are looking towards Canada and are seriously asking how they can avoid becoming the next Canada. About the only thing truthful about such statements is that other countries are, in fact, watching Canada closely, but their thinking differs greatly from what Trudeau seems to think they are saying.

Of course, the ultimately question is, why does it matter what other countries are thinking? It really doesn’t. In the inevitable situation of the total failure of this law, does it really matter what a country like the UK thinks? Whether the UK openly supports Canada’s approach or is making the facepalm gesture, it doesn’t change the outcome of the Canadian government screwing over the entire news sector in this country. It’s all the same to the financial situation for Canadian media outlets in the end.

Hilariously, Trudeau also brings up the “but Australia!” talking point that really doesn’t mean much. The Canadian model and the Australian model functions very differently. The platforms were never designated under the Australian model. Instead, the government basically urged them to cut a deal with a handful of outlets in exchange for lack of designation. The Canadian model, meanwhile, automatically designates the platforms. So, it’s basically a more extreme version of Australia’s link tax law in that regard. For this reason alone, it’s no wonder the results so far are so drastically different.

Trudeau also talked about government subsidies and he talked about how he doesn’t want a media sector wholly dependent on government handouts. The problem with that is the fact that the Online News Act set up the situation where either the media relies on permanent government bailouts or goes bankrupt. Indeed, in light of Meta moving towards dropping news links in Canada, the Canadian government openly floated the idea of massive bailouts for the media sector. If the government is stubborn in its forceful link tax policy, then a constant government bailout of the media would be the most likely way for the media to survive (and never thrive). This, obviously, sets up a terrible scenario where the only journalism that comes out of Canada is government subsidized which is a really toxic situation for the credibility of journalism in this country – credibility that is already, at best, on the ropes in this country.

The portion of the interview ended with this exchange:

VM: Are you hopeful that Google is going to come to the table and figure out a way? Because if Google pulls out, that would be catastrophic for the entire news industry.

JT: Meta has chosen to be really bad and irresponsible actors. They have said: ‘It doesn’t matter that billions of people rely on them for their information, we’re not going to take any responsibility for defending democracy.’ That is Meta’s choice and I absolutely condemn them for it. But hopefully they will eventually change their minds. Google is being more thoughtful about it, they’re still very careful because they know what we do in Canada will end up getting adopted around the world. But once again, it falls on Canada to show people what is right and the way to go.

I hate to break it to you Trudeau, but unless you are rescinding the law, Meta isn’t changing their minds. You can stamp your feet and call Meta a bunch of meanies all you want, but that’s not going to change the situation there. To suggest otherwise is, at best, extremely naive. Trudeau more or less dodged the question about where Google is on this, but the honest truth in the matter is that Google is still of the position that they’ll be dropping news links as well. Yes, they are in talks with the government, trying to work something out, but by the time we reach December 19th, unless there is a dramatic shift that gets Google to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Google news links apocalypse will likely be upon us.

As I brought up in a recent post, my suspicion in all of this is that talks aren’t going very well. If they were, the government and the media would be championing the progression towards a deal being worked out which… hasn’t happened as far as I know. Now that we are less than 30 days away from a final decision likely being rendered, the lack of an answer here suggests that progress hasn’t really been made.

Ultimately, this interview should be chilling for anyone wanting to make an innovative news business online. For one, the governments position has remained unchanged. For another, the government is still pushing all of those nonsense talking points as if they had a chip to bargain with. Online innovators should be nervous about the non-answer. I’m personally thinking that the situation is still unchanged and we’ll probably see Google pull the plug from news links altogether. At that point, all I have left is to sit here and count the businesses going under because of this disaster of a law. While that has already started, it is likely that pace would only increase from the point that Google is forced to make that final decision.

(via @MarcEdge)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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