Unanswered Bill C-18 Question: What is “A Particular Topic”?

Bill C-18 contains a provision that explicitly forbids outlets from publishing on “a particular topic”. What’s that?

When Bill C-18 was tabled, we posted our analysis that showcases just how absolutely awful the legislation is. One part of the bill we clued in to was Section 27 (1) (b) (iii). We wanted to focus in on that a little bit more and showcase just how ill-defined that part of the bill is.

So, for context, this part of the bill determines eligibility of a news organization to receive funding from the link tax scheme. To fully appreciate it, we’ll re-post this section here:

Eligible news businesses — designation

27 (1) At the request of a news business, the Commission must, by order, designate the business as eligible if it

(b) produces news content that is primarily focused on matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes, and

(i) regularly employs two or more journalists in Canada,

(ii) operates in Canada, including having content edited and designed in Canada, and

(iii) produces news content that is not primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment.

This provision, as we previously commented, showcases just how dirty this legislation plays with any smaller online news outlets. It’s one rock in a mountain of evidence showcasing just how much this was written by lobbyists so that this bill only benefits the biggest players in the industry. This while it leaves out the rest to fend for themselves.

When people generally start up news websites, they do so with a particular topic in mind. This might include stock trading, automotive news, culture, a specific genre of music, and more. There are many reasons why this happens. For one, it follows along with the whole “write what you know” mentality when it comes to forming a strategy while creating a whole news website. Another reason is that it is an effective method of drawing in an audience. General news websites might offer, at best, spotty coverage of a topic that you think deserves more attention. So, a website that specializes in a particular area is seen as highly valuable.

So, a website that does focus on a particular topic has some very specific advantages over general interest websites. A general interest website might assign a journalist who knows little about the topic to explain, in depth, what is going on. They don’t necessarily have the background knowledge that a journalist on said website might have. This to allow more specific questions to be asked. Instead, it is much easier to simply offer up a talking point and the journalist might believe it – because they don’t necessarily know what is generally known in that particular industry.

When a law is written to explicitly exclude that specialized site, it gives a permanent market advantage to the outlet that doesn’t have that background knowledge. The general news outlet will be able to afford all the marketing they want because money is just handed to them for free. Meanwhile, the specialized website is forced to get creative because they don’t have that permanent advantage.

Getting into the nuts and bolts of this law, however, showcases how vague this proposed law actually is. Let’s saw a website could afford two journalists and operates in Canada. What about (iii)? Specifically, what counts as a website “is not primarily focused on a particular topic”? The provision offers general examples, sure, but what does the law actually mean? It’s actually not clear at all.

Take us, for example. Does this website focus on a “particular topic” or are we sufficiently diversified to qualify? Indeed, we talk about copyright law, censorship related topics, privacy and a whole lot more. Those three examples are, in our view, completely different topics. Copyright related topics will attract a specific audience. Privacy related issues tends to attract different people. Further, censorship related stories is its own ball of wax.

Of course, the problem is that you are now trying to explain this to someone who is much more illiterate to these types of concepts. They might take a cursory look at the news and say, “you are focused on technology and, therefore, ineligible”. When that person might look really can play a role in making that broad and sweeping assumption, too.

Anyone who has devoted a particular amount of time in the news knows that news has its own ebb and flow. What’s more is that there are multiple ebb’s and flow’s that one could find themselves in. That is the general nature of news today because there is an overabundance of news to write about. You’re simply not going to be able to write about it all. So, if privacy related news happens to be a big topic at that particular moment, a cursory look might suggest that we are simply focused on privacy news. Same kind of thinking for any other particular topic.

So, the next question is, is there a time limit to how long you can focus on a particular topic? Does the site have to have a completely different story every few days to not trip that section of the law? What is that time limit? Is there a time limit in the first place or does an audit consist of taking a holistic approach? We honestly don’t really know. We’re not even convinced anyone has any real answer to that, either.

What’s more is that we have regular music and game reviews and video game previews as well. Would something like that count towards diversifying that content sufficiently? We’re honestly not really sure.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be a Freezenet specific problem, either. Every website that even attempts to qualify will have to grapple with such an issue as well. Is that tech website too specific? It talks about science, technology, astronomy, and a whole lot more. So, does that qualify or is it too specific?

How about, say, a theoretical website in Canada all about fashion. This website might talk about the issues of inflation and the cost of bolts of fabric. The site might also talk about different sewing techniques. This site might also talk about different trends and sewing techniques. Is this a website that focuses on a particular topic of is it sufficiently diverse to not trip that provision?

The overarching question in all of this is, where is the line here? What counts as sufficiently diverse that a site isn’t focused on a particular topic? What counts towards a site being focused on a particular topic? Is there a time period for which has to shift focus so as not to trigger that provision? Or, as we are suspecting all along, is this just a blunt hammer to smack down any website that dares to challenge established players in any way shape or form?

All of this doesn’t even touch on the idea of what business the government has in determining what is and isn’t news in the first place. It’s an inherent conflict of interest that goes on so often in third world dictator run countries. After all, how common is it for dictators to control what is and is not said in the press in their respective countries? When a government is even contemplating laws that controls the media, the government is already treading on thin ice. This aspect is just one of many reasons why this bill should be scrapped.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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