Second reading of Bill C-18, An Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Rideau Canal, Ottawa

Hon. Peter Harder moved second reading of Bill C-18, An Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada.

He said: I wish to acknowledge, as I rise today, that I rise on the traditional and unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe peoples.

Honourable senators, I’m pleased to share my support for Bill C-18, the online news act. Before we get into the details of the bill, I hope we can agree that action is needed to address the challenges faced by the Canadian news sector at this time.

A healthy democracy depends on well-informed citizens, and well-informed citizens depend on a free and independent press. Yet, with each passing year, we witness news outlets struggling to deliver on their mandates of providing Canadians with fair and unbiased information. As we all know, colleagues, a free and independent press is one of the foundations of a safe, prosperous and democratic society. Ensuring the viability of news outlets is thus necessary and timely.

We can also agree that our news consumption habits have changed forever. Long gone are the days of the broadsheet setting the agenda for public debate. Today, whether through our personal searches on the web or social media, the news reaches us via a number of digital platforms. Put simply, the business model of these digital platforms is to capture billions of dollars in advertising in exchange for our eyeballs.

But while the news business is doing the heavy lifting in covering news and the events of the day and reporting on issues that matter to our communities — be it local, national or international — little of the value of that work goes back to them.

If we agree that news has a crucial value in producing an informed electorate, then we must address the present imbalance that threatens our democracy. This legislation follows on the heels of a similar effort in Australia, but other countries are implementing or planning comparable laws.

New Zealand, for example, announced in December 2022 that its own legislation would draw heavily on what they called Canada’s “objective, futureproof and transparent” approach.

The aim of Bill C-18 is to create a news ecosystem that promotes the creation of high-quality news content and reflects Canada’s diverse voices and stories. We know that this type of content is central to our social and civic discourse and to the health of communities that make up this country. Without a healthy media — not just here in Ottawa, but in all communities, large and small — the public’s capacity to hold their leaders accountable will atrophy. Voters will become less informed — or misinformed — on what’s at stake in elections. Policy prescriptions aimed at creating a better society are barely illuminated, if they are discussed at all.

We have seen how the spread of misinformation and disinformation around the world can damage societies. A robust, questioning media is one of the most effective antidotes to these disorders.

We all understand that freedom of expression and freedom of the press require that news reporting be done with full editorial independence, free from undue governmental interference. It requires that Canadians be able to continue to express themselves online, including by sharing news content.

Further, we must also acknowledge that, ultimately, our freedom of expression as Canadians depends crucially on the quality of the news content and information that we create and consume.

Bill C-18 focuses its support on the entities that create high-quality news content, eligible news businesses, the outlets they operate and the journalists they engage.

To be sure, the services that aggregate the reporting of others for their users have a role to play in the Canadian information ecosystem. These online services represent great advancements in how we access news and, more widely, how we share information.

Ultimately, these services, which act as gatekeepers to online information, are only as good as the information they curate. The success of some platforms as gatekeepers of information has allowed them to leverage a position of dominance in online advertising. This dominance creates an imbalance that undermines news businesses’ revenue streams and continued creation of quality news.

That is why Bill C-18 aims to level the playing field between dominant online platforms and the news businesses. Bill C-18 will support news businesses and their outlets when they primarily produce the kind of rigorous journalism and reporting that Canadians expect of professional news.

The government estimates that, annually, approximately C$215 million in compensation will go from digital platforms to eligible news businesses in Canada.

The online news act provides a legislative and regulatory framework that is flexible, modern and encourages market fairness. It will set the table for platforms to sit down with media outlets of all sizes, equipped with the ability to bargain collectively, bringing players to the bargaining process on a more equal footing. This is the path forward for a better balance of bargaining power in the Canadian digital news ecosystem.

The anticipated impact of Bill C-18 is significant regardless of whose financial estimates one uses. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, for example, estimated the bill could result in $329 million in total compensation for news businesses. When you look at the definition used for broadcasters compared to the rest of the news industry, you will see it is far broader, so the breakdown on the broadcast side is likely higher. These potential discrepancies are worthy of committee discussions. It can’t be denied that these payments will provide a lifeline for our country’s struggling news businesses.

Key amendments introduced in the other place have improved the bill in several ways, such as changes to the criteria for news business eligibility, the rules exempting platforms from the regime and other elements that reflect calls from stakeholders to improve Bill C-18’s ability to support a wider range of news businesses, including smaller news outlets and diverse perspectives.

Who will benefit from this bill? First off, news businesses must apply to be eligible for participation in the bargaining. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission — the CRTC — will designate news businesses as eligible if they meet a set of criteria intended to support rigorous, quality journalism that informs Canadians on important points. There are four ways for news businesses to be eligible: as a qualified Canadian journalism organization under the Income Tax Act; as licensed campus, community or Indigenous broadcasters; as a Canadian organization covering news of general interest; or as an Indigenous news outlet. These carefully considered criteria are designed to ensure that only rigorous journalism benefits from this new regime.

You will recall that the first path to eligibility, which is the qualified Canadian journalism organization designation — also known by the acronym QCJO — was developed in support of the Canadian journalism labour tax credit introduced in the 2018 Fall Economic Statement. It specifies that to qualify, news businesses must produce original reporting on issues and events that matter to Canadian readers, including news, features, investigations, profiles, interviews and analyses or commentaries.

These qualified news organizations are reviewed by a diverse and independent advisory panel of active or retired faculty of post-secondary journalism schools across the country. By leveraging the QCJO standard, we can keep the eligibility criteria for new businesses in harmony with existing legislation with proven experience and keep the amount of red tape, government intervention or duplication to a minimum.

These QCJOs must also adhere to key journalistic principles, including a commitment to research and verifying information before publication and presenting diverse perspectives and analyses. An eligible news outlet will also have a policy for correcting errors and honestly representing sources.

The other place added a second route to being classified as an eligible news organization or business. Parties agreed that campus, community and Indigenous broadcasters licensed under the Broadcasting Act do provide a great amount of local news and information across the country even though they may not meet the QCJO definition. These broadcasters were added in recognition of their unique role and contribution to the Canadian news landscape.

News businesses that are not designated as QCJOs can also apply to be eligible if they report on current events of general interest, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes, and demonstrate rigour through editorial oversight and adherence to recognized professional journalistic standards.

This route requires that an organization regularly employs two or more journalists. This two-journalist threshold promotes consistency by reflecting the existing rules for qualification in the criteria for a QCJO. It also favours a higher standard of reporting by ensuring that the news content in question benefits from the editorial perspective and independent insights of another professional journalist. The two-journalist requirement is a crucial factor for ensuring that Canadians have access to independent and rigorous journalism.

One other important amendment that was added in the other place now specifies that this rule does not require journalists to operate at arm’s length from the business. In other words, this allows for a framework that is more inclusive of start-ups and small news outlets, including those serving a diverse readership and more rural communities whose owners or operators may also be practising journalists themselves. Outlets in small Prairie communities, Canada’s North and other isolated towns and villages, as well as ethnic media, will benefit from this bill. In many cases, these communities have but one local outlet upon which they can count.

A fourth and final path to eligibility was added by the other place. The last route by which a news business can be considered eligible is an Indigenous outlet. Indigenous organizations operating in Canada are eligible if they cover matters of general interest and the rights of Indigenous peoples, such as treaty rights and the right of self-government. Bill C-18 is platform-agnostic and will provide support to all types of news organizations. Print, digital and broadcast are all eligible under Bill C-18 if they meet the criteria.

Promoting the sustainability of Indigenous media in our country not only benefits the diversity of our media landscape in supporting news media content that adequately reflects our nation’s Indigenous cultural diversity; this aspect of Bill C-18 also reflects our and the government’s commitment to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

There have been some questions as to why our national broadcaster should be eligible under Bill C-18 since the CBC/Radio-Canada already receives public funding.

In many parts of our country, CBC/Radio-Canada is the only source of reliable, fact-based journalism. Canadians rely on the information of our public broadcaster. It is only to the advantage of the tech giants that our public broadcaster is excluded from bargaining over the value of their online content. Furthermore, why should Canadian taxpayers contribute to the bottom lines of these platforms by letting the content they helped pay for be used for free? Taken together, these eligibility criteria for news businesses offer clear guidance for outlets wanting to benefit from the regime. In being inclusive of a diversity of businesses, including small and independent businesses, the criteria support the bill’s purpose of contributing to the sustainability of the news marketplace.

As I have mentioned, Bill C-18 will encourage digital platforms — that have dominant market positions — to enter into voluntary commercial agreements that fairly compensate Canadian news businesses for the use and sharing of their news online. The CRTC will play an important role in ensuring the legislation results in fair agreements that contribute to the sustainability of the news sector. As an independent regulator, part of its job is to uphold freedom of expression and journalistic independence.

The CRTC is an expert in media regulation, as well as fair and transparent public processes, and offers final arbitration. The commission is well positioned to implement the regulatory tools included in this bill that prevent digital platforms from unduly favouring or disadvantaging certain news businesses, thus preserving the independence of the press.

The commission’s role will be to help pave the way to fairly negotiated agreements, including developing a code of conduct and monitoring the marketplace to ensure that the framework continues to meet its objectives. In the rare case that parties cannot agree, it will facilitate final offer arbitration — an option that Bill C-18 presents properly, in my view, as a last resort.

One of the CRTC’s roles will be to grant exemptions from parts of the act to platforms. To do so, platforms will need to demonstrate that they are contributing to a sustainable news sector by entering into fair commercial agreements with news businesses that reflect the diversity of the Canadian news marketplace.

Platforms — defined as “digital news intermediaries” in the bill — wishing to be granted an exemption have a clear road map. This means making deals with outlets based in small communities from coast to coast to coast. This means making agreements with news outlets producing coverage in both official languages, with Indigenous media and with outlets representing Black and racialized groups. This means there should be agreements with a balanced number of outlets from each region of the country. Agreements will have to guarantee that journalists and editors can still cover the issues and the stories that matter without interference, respecting the independence of the press and freedom of expression.

New criteria introduced in the other place ensure that platforms must also enter into agreements with smaller players, such as not-for-profit outlets, news businesses serving diverse populations and Indigenous news outlets. This is another reason we can be optimistic that this bill, once implemented, will have a positive impact in our news ecosystem.

The rules for exemption from the regime provide platforms with clear and transparent criteria to guide them in taking a balanced and fair approach when making deals. The focus is on the scope of the agreements and the range of the marketplace they cover. The CRTC will grant an online platform exemption from the act, provided the agreement reflects this balanced and fair approach. These exemption criteria are objective and designed to advance the goals of the bill. To be clear, the CRTC will not pick winners and losers. The framework is fundamentally based on free negotiations between news publishers and platforms, setting a level playing field for those agreements. It provides safeguards to ensure that, ultimately, agreements further the public interest objectives of the legislation.

Transparency is built into the regulatory process at a very early step. This includes the decisions on both eligibility and exemption. The regulator will be able to assess whether any agreement between news businesses and platforms poses a risk to journalistic independence, safeguarding the freedom of the press.

The information from this process will also feed into another key innovation in Bill C-18: the annual report by an independent auditor on the impact of Bill C-18 on the digital news marketplace. Giving the CRTC the ability to assess agreements makes it easier to follow the outcomes and impact of the act. This is how we can assess how well it is meeting its goal of enhancing fairness in the digital news marketplace.

The CRTC’s public processes provide the opportunity for commentary and course correction down the line, if needed. Public processes make it possible to better gauge the impact of the legislation on the long-term viability of the Canadian news sector. It’s one of the reasons Canada’s innovative and flexible approach is seen by our like-minded countries as a model of objectivity and transparency.

Honourable senators, I would be remiss if I failed to recognize the essential role that the media play in protecting the vitality of our languages, culture and identity. It is also important to ensure that Canadians have access to in-depth fact-based information in the official language of their choice. That’s why Bill C-18 requires platforms to enter into a series of agreements with the media, including the local and regional press organizations of every province and territory and anglophone, francophone and official language minority communities.

I’m also pleased to see that organizations, such as Hebdos Québec, have expressed their strong support for this bill. I’d like to share with you an excerpt from a statement made by Hebdos Québec, which I believe reflects the sentiment of many media outlets across the country. It said, and I quote:

 . . . it is not about technology but a difference in negotiating power. Individually, newspapers have no choice but to turn to platforms unless they want to lose a large part of their readership and advertising revenue.

Google and Facebook are the only options for many editors, while the platforms can ignore the requests of any editor.

The government will be there for Canadians because they expect the government to act in a transparent manner to protect their local journalism; because the government must protect the future of a free and independent press; because we need to ensure that Canadians have access to fact-based information; and because we must work together to protect the strength of our democracy.

Now, I’d like to take this opportunity to address some of the concerns I’ve heard around this bill. Much of the commentary around Bill C-18 has involved unfortunate misrepresentations about “pay per click” and “ending free speech online in Canada.” Unfortunately, this commentary seeks to frame this legislation as yet another threat to the internet as we know it here in Canada.

I’m sure that many of you are hearing some of these issues surrounding the bill. But, of course, it isn’t hard to connect the dots.

When commentators claim that Bill C-18 will “break the internet,” what they mean is that Bill C-18 will impact the profit margins of the dominant platforms. It will require that these platforms share advertising revenues fairly with the people who create and publish the news content that appears on the platforms’ services. Australia has similar legislation, and let me assure you that the internet is still working there. I’m sure it will also work in New Zealand as that country puts forward its own regime in the coming weeks.

When some say that Bill C-18 will result in links being blocked online, what they mean is that big platforms are not above playing hardball. We all watched as Meta, in response to new online news legislation in Australia, pulled links to news, as well as information on essential services, including weather reports. We now know from whistle-blowers that Meta calculated the withdrawal to maximize chaos and damage. But Canadians will not be intimidated. Dominant digital platforms should have to bargain fairly and in good faith, and that is what this bill provides.

To be clear, Bill C-18 would target the most dominant platforms, which act as key intermediaries in the ways that Canadians access news. They would have these platforms negotiate agreements to fairly share the benefits they derive from the full scope of ways they make news content available to users of their services.

Bill C-18 is not a pay-per-click scheme for news. Those commentators who suggest this idea are, to my understanding, misrepresenting the framework. They see it through a conventional approach to online licensing — essentially a copyright licence. But Bill C-18 sits alongside the Copyright Act. In the context of a digital platform exercising significant power imbalances, it imposes a bargaining framework to require fair and good-faith negotiations. Bill C-18 is not copyright legislation; actually, it’s more in the form of ensuring fair competition in this area.

Another myth: There are observers who say that Bill C-18 is a “link tax” or mandates “payments for links” and conclude that the bill will incentivize clickbait over high-quality journalism and, worse, that it will end free linking on the internet. But that is not what Bill C-18 does. Nowhere does the bill mandate any kind of tariff or payment for a link. What it does require is that when links to news are made available by platforms that have significant power over news businesses, those platforms have to come to the table and bargain; that is all.

This is a framework designed to empower news businesses in the digital economy. It is designed to help those businesses better leverage their news content and more fully realize the benefits of their efforts. It is designed to check the power of some of the world’s most dominant platforms so that fair negotiations can take place. It does not introduce a tax but, rather, it adjusts the marketplace to one that appropriately recognizes the value of news content and those who create and produce it.

Recognizing the appropriate value of news content to the most dominant platforms means counting all the ways this content features on their services.

One of the ways platforms benefit is by using this news content, and the ability to access and share it, to attract Canadians to their services. Links play a central role in this offering from platforms to Canadians.

We saw that links to news content have a value to platforms when Google continued to refuse to pay publishers in the European Union under a copyright approach that includes headlines and snippets but does not include hyperlinks. The results from the EU experiment have been found wanting, to say the least.

Lengthy court battles over unwieldy digital rights management systems have not delivered timely help to news businesses. That is precisely why Bill C-18 creates a marketplace that considers all the ways news content is made available.

Another important point I would like to make is the following: Freedom of speech is not threatened by this bill. Bill C-18 does not contain provisions that would allow anyone to block news links. Bill C-18 does not contain provisions empowering anyone to prohibit the quoting of news.

Instead, Bill C-18 imposes obligations on the most powerful entities in the online information ecosystem. It includes an obligation on platforms to not unfairly exploit the positions they hold as gateways to information online by redirecting crucial advertising revenue from the same news publishers whose work they feature on their services.

Online platforms have long touted their services as the “digital public square” — as online spaces where citizens can connect to share ideas and make decisions about their lives, their communities and their place in our broader society. These platforms have enriched themselves immensely, becoming some of the most valuable enterprises in the history of the world, by using network effects to essentially hold an audience captive.

However, the quality of the discourse in the public square can only be as good as the quality of the content through which people become informed and reach their understanding. Even as these platforms enrich themselves, new businesses — the ones that create the content on which Canadians rely for their information — are going out of business at an alarming rate. While it is true that the number of other independent outlets is growing — thanks to the increased development of products for the web — it is also true that Canada has lost over 460 outlets since 2008.

What is more, those losses have come in communities that are isolated and often served by only one outlet to begin with. Last month, Postmedia, which operates more than 100 large and small newspapers across the nation, announced cuts of 11% to a staff that is already overstretched.

More recently, British Columbia-based Overstory Media Group announced layoffs affecting publications like The Georgia StraightVancouver Tech JournalThe CoastBurnaby BeaconFraser Valley CurrentNew West AnchorCalgary CitizenTasting VictoriaOak Bay LocalThe WestshoreVictoria Tech JournalEat Tri-CitiesCalgary Tech Journal and Capital Daily.

It is hard for me to imagine that no one in this chamber has seen their home community untouched by layoffs or closures. As senators, our perspectives and ability to represent the concerns of our constituents are being weakened by this atrophy. If we don’t already, we will soon lack the information required to make the best decisions for the welfare of our fellow citizens.

Some have argued that only big media benefit from Bill C-18. The evidence from Australia is the exact opposite. The whole point of the legislation is to get as many outlets as possible to the negotiating table. There is strength in numbers. By coming together, the smaller outlets will be in a stronger negotiating position and they will finally get fair compensation for the content their journalists create. And it is that content that will drive advertising and subscriptions.

What Bill C-18 does is level the playing field so that news businesses may receive a fair share of the benefit when their works are made available on dominant digital platforms. It ensures that Canadian journalists can continue to create quality content to be discussed in the digital public square. By ensuring the continued creation of quality Canadian news content online, Bill C-18 fundamentally supports the sustainability of the news sector and, in so doing, the freedom of expression of all Canadians.

Finally, I cannot overstate the importance of this bill for the future and sustainability of local news. It is critical that we support Canadian news media by fostering the best conditions for them to continue to produce journalism of the highest industry standards that reach our citizens, no matter where they are.

This issue is not to be taken lightly, given the number of Canadian jobs and businesses that are at stake, but it’s also because the heart of this issue lies in the vitality and sustainability of our very democracy. Citizens need to be able to make informed decisions about who they want to lead them, what benefits and policies they believe will benefit them and their communities and what services they can afford to pay for and those they can do without. This is particularly important in an age when citizens increasingly gravitate to what are simply the loudest voices.

Just as governments shouldn’t pick winners and losers, big tech monopolies should not have that right either, yet that is precisely what is happening leading up to the introduction of this bill. In an attempt to thwart it, the web giants have already negotiated content licensing agreements with some of the largest names in the Canadian news business: The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and Le Devoir, to name just three.

Bill C-18 allows many smaller outlets to come together as one to negotiate similar commercial agreements. Without legislation, those smaller outlets will wither on the vine and the lucky few larger players to whom the platforms have offered short-term deals can kiss them goodbye when their term is up.

Let me conclude by saying that while this bill is a priority for the government and has enjoyed multi-party support in the other place, this bill is urgent and essential for the news sector. Every month of delay risks further layoffs. It goes without saying that this bill requires appropriate and robust consideration in this place, but its passage ought to be expeditious, because most of the outlets it would serve are in a perilous state. I therefore urge this chamber to advance this bill as quickly as possible to committee so we can continue that review.

Thank you.

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