Third Reading of Bill C-18, An Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada, as amended

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Hon. Peter Harder: Thank you, Madam Speaker, and thank you, colleagues, for letting us commence this debate now.

I rise today on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people to speak on third reading of Bill C-18, the online news act. This bill compels large digital platforms, like Meta and Google, to compensate Canadian media outlets in return for posting news content on their platforms. It is a bill that we must urgently pass for the sake of the industry and, perhaps more importantly, for the sake of our public discourse and our commitment to democratic debate.

Senators are no doubt familiar with the bill, so I won’t dwell on the specifics. At its essence, the online news act will encourage digital platforms to enter into voluntary commercial agreements between themselves and the news organizations whose content they post on their sites. Those who don’t reach agreements will be subject to final-offer arbitration.

At issue is the fact that these same digital platforms derive economic benefit in the form of ad revenue from content that they do not produce. In some cases, they pay individual outlets for content, but in many others they do not.

Bill C-18 would ensure that those platforms can no longer pick and choose which outlets they will compensate. It is, in its rawest form, a bill aimed at levelling the playing field between those outlets that have agreements and those that don’t.

Many of the latter are small- and medium-sized outlets that have continued to publish on shoestring budgets, having already slashed jobs and wages. Since 2008, Canada has lost over 460 outlets. Just five months ago, Postmedia, which operates more than 100 large and small newspapers across the nation, announced cuts of 11% of its staff.

Many of the publications that this bill will help have already made heroic efforts to serve the public. I am put in mind, for example, of the public service performed by our nation’s minority language press in informing various diasporas on how to protect themselves from the coronavirus. New Canadians, many of whom don’t speak either English or French, had nowhere else to turn for information that — it is no exaggeration — they needed to survive. These publications stepped up, with some operating at a loss. It’s fair to ask whether they will still be there when the next public health emergency surfaces.

Others, like hard-pressed rural and northern outlets, have continued to publish the goings-on of their community, connecting the farthest-flung parts of our country to our larger population centres. This is a crucial role they play at a time when polarization in Canada and the rest of the world interferes with our ability to talk to each other.

Still other publications in the racialized, Indigenous and official minority language spheres work hard to inform their often underserved readerships. This initiative will help those I just mentioned if they want to be part of it.

Let me hasten to add, though, that Bill C-18 should not be seen by anyone as a panacea. It is but one of a number of programs already undertaken which are aimed at helping our challenged news industry weather and, hopefully, thrive in the ever-changing digital environment.

It is my own view that the future of journalism will be shaped not just by the surviving legacy media outlets, but by the many smaller, flexible and adaptable outlets that have begun to spring up.

A number of them appeared before us during committee hearings. One such outlet is The Logic, a digital-only publication that covers the innovation economy by providing in-depth reporting on organizations, policies and people driving transformational change. This is an issue, as senators might know, that is close to my heart.

Despite The Logic’s devotion to such pioneering subject matter, it finds itself at a competitive disadvantage, forced to contend with larger outlets that already have agreements with the big digital platforms. Indeed, the publication’s Chief Executive Officer, David Skok, has said it’s unfortunate to be in a situation where he must rely on agreements with private industries like Google to help fund his publication’s journalism. The Logic feels compelled to support the act because Big Tech selects which outlets it wants to support through voluntary agreements and refrains from supporting others. This creates an uneven playing field.

If we want to encourage the development of publications like The Logic — which I believe are the future — we cannot allow the larger platforms to sign deals only with the big players. This makes for competitive unfairness and, more disturbingly, allows Big Tech to pick winners and losers — exactly the criticism that gets levelled at government for launching initiatives like this bill.

It’s far better, in my view, to treat everyone equally, particularly in an industry that provides such an important public service as does journalism.

Adding this initiative to others that have been enacted by government, including the Canada Periodical Fund, the Local Journalism Initiative and the journalism labour tax credit, will go some ways to sustaining the industry as it continues to find its legs in the new environment.

The bill, of course, is not free of criticism. Some have criticized it, for example, for potentially keeping alive publications that have not done the work required to adjust to the new reality. I will leave that judgment to others more familiar with the efforts being made at some of these outlets, many of which have been publishing for generations.

I would say, however, that the consequences of not supporting those publications risks the loss of something bigger than the publications themselves — namely, the infrastructure which supports the whole profession.

What is ultimately at stake here is the removal of experienced and guiding hands which maintain a mature industry over time. In our own review of the bill, it became clear that younger journalism graduates have fewer and fewer mentors to whom they can look up. These younger journalists are put into positions of leadership which, in previous years, would have taken many of them more years to reach. The pool upon which even the best publications rely on to hire promising up-and-comers is becoming shallower by the year.

Given this contraction, is it any wonder that publications that deal with misinformation and disinformation are becoming increasingly influential? Relying on such outlets to convey information would be bad even for Big Tech, which makes me wonder why they continue to use bullying tactics to oppose this bill. As you know, the big platforms have gone so far as to experiment with blocking access to news on their sites. Just this week, Meta began blocking news for some Canadians on Facebook in a test that is expected to last most of the month. Google did the same thing earlier this year.

Now, it’s not my business to say whether such moves are counterproductive for a company’s Canadian reputation or its bottom line. It defies credulity when these corporations argue that it is somehow their free-market right to derive ad revenue without compensating those who create the content.

Musicians who write pop songs get paid when those pop songs are played on the radio. Playwrights get a royalty when their work is put on a stage, even at the local community theatre. When a famous individual’s image is used to advertise a certain product, that person is paid for the value of the personal brand he or she has created through many years of hard work.

As Ronald Reagan learned, if you want to use “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign theme, you’d better ask The Boss first.

These platforms claim that news holds little value for them. This is too hard to buy. Users come to social media and search engines to access the totality of the internet; 77% of Canadians get their news online, including 55% of Canadians who use social media platforms as a pathway to news.

Professor Dwayne Winseck, who testified before our committee, estimates that in 2021 Google’s advertising revenue in Canada alone was $4.9 billion while Meta’s was $4 billion.

What these foreign multinationals are really worried about is a check on their dominant market position. International observers whose nations are considering similar compensation initiatives are noticing this behaviour. Damian Collins, a British MP and former tech minister — by the way, a Conservative MP — had this to say:

It says a lot about the values of a company like @Meta that in Canada instead of paying modest compensation to news companies for the free distribution of their content, they’d rather block it. A big win for disinformation pushers if they flow through.

These same observers are watching the Canadian experiment and our experience very closely. That these internet giants would rather cut off Canadians’ access to local news than pay their fair share is a real problem.

The international community is also measuring the effectiveness of this bill, in many cases to see if they can use it as a guidepost for their own legislation.

The United Kingdom and New Zealand are putting forward comparable legislation while the European countries are implementing the EU copyright directive, which puts comparable requirements on platforms to compensate news publishers.

They will, no doubt, create legislation tailored to their own circumstances. They may even improve on our bill, just as we have improved on the Australian version, which raises the better question: Could this bill have been made better? Time will tell.

Let me say, though, that the committee which reviewed Bill C-18 has done so in a rigorous and thoughtful way and added a number of amendments that are supported by the government. They include, for example, putting a tripwire in place for the full regime to come into force within six months after Royal Assent, guaranteeing that an outlet does not have to participate in the regime if it does not wish to do so, and adding language that deals with official minority language communities as well as Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities.

However, the government expressed opposition to one amendment passed by committee. This amendment would force negotiators to set boundaries on bargaining by setting a simple value for news content and potentially curbing negotiations over other items of value. I expressed opposition to this amendment because it would likely result in less favourable negotiations for news outlets.

Currently, the legislation intentionally does not set boundaries on what parties can negotiate overall, allowing them to bargain over the elements outside the scope of news content. Under the current bill, the CRTC — the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission — would be required not only to consider the value of news content but also the value of a reader’s personal information, which can be used for other purposes.

This amendment reduces potential compensation to the outlets. Don’t take my word for it; take the word of the industry members who are surprised by this amendment. They say it handcuffs them and helps the platforms more than the media.

Paul Deegan, the CEO of News Media Canada, which represents 560 titles, said the following:

The amendment would limit the ability of news publishers to negotiate fair compensation with dominant platforms. Value will be determined during negotiations.

Pierre-Elliott Levasseur, President of La Presse, agreed:

This amendment would tie one hand behind our back and hamstring us in negotiations with the platforms that enjoy a massive power imbalance over news publishers. The majority of media outlets in Canada have tried to get deals with Facebook and Google, only to have the door slammed in their faces. This is particularly true in Quebec, where La Presse, the Quebecor titles and the Hebdos have all been left out in the cold. This amendment benefits the platforms at the expense of publishers.

So says Pierre-Elliott Levasseur.

Allow me, again, to underscore the need for urgent action. Big Tech would like nothing more than for this bill to be delayed beyond the summer, eating up crucial time to negotiate badly needed agreements with news outlets which are already in a very tight spot.

You need look no further than the announcement this week that BCE Inc. plans a news division consolidation by cutting 1,300 positions and closing or selling off nine radio stations.

It is also not hyperbole to say the very fabric of our democracy depends on a robust and diverse media; without it, the body politic will not have the information it needs to make informed decisions on our nation’s future.

If you doubt this, have a look at the nations that do not have access to unfettered press and the unchecked power wielded by their often autocratic leaders. I am not just speaking of the most vicious examples, like Vladimir Putin. I also think of a nation like Hungary, led by authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Reporters Without Borders currently ranks Hungary eighty-fifth in the world when it comes to press freedom. Ten years ago, it ranked fortieth.

Turkey is another example. In the month of April, during that country’s recent election, the state broadcaster devoted 60 times more coverage to the incumbent — and the eventual winner — President Erdoğan than to his main opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Both of these nations were heretofore relatively strong Western democracies.

Here in Canada, we are obviously not living in the same environment. But we must be more vigilant about protecting democracy than we have been.

If you believe I’m exaggerating, look at the threats to pluralism that have taken root in the country south of us — and I don’t mean Mexico. We may not have appreciated it before, but it’s clear that democracy is fragile.

This is an essential bill aimed at providing one of our most important democratic institutions with some degree of protection.

It needs to become law and receive Royal Assent before we rise for the summer to ensure that those who need it can derive benefits before it’s too late.

I therefore urge your support for this important third reading vote. Thank you.

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