A healthy democracy depends on well-informed citizens, and well-informed citizens depend on a free and independent press.
Our news consumption habits have forever changed. Gone are the days of the broadsheet setting the agenda for public debate. Today, the news reaches us via a small number of digital platforms. Their business model is to capture billions of dollars in advertising in exchange for our attention. But while the news business is doing the heavy lifting in covering events and reporting on issues that matter to our communities — be they local, national or international — very little of that value goes back to it.
The aim of Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is to return some of that value to the people who create and promote high-quality news and opinion. Without a healthy media — not just in Ottawa, but in all communities — citizens’ capacity to hold their leaders accountable atrophies. Voters become less informed or misinformed on what’s at stake in elections. And policy prescriptions aimed at creating a better society are often barely illuminated.
To be sure, services that aggregate the reporting of others for their own users have a role to play in the Canadian information ecosystem. But ultimately, these services, which act as gatekeepers to online information, are only as good as the information they curate. The success of some platforms has allowed them to dominate online advertising — advertising that they position in close proximity to the content produced by others, whose work attracts the eyeballs in the first place. This dominance creates an imbalance that undermines news businesses’ revenue streams and the continued creation of quality news.
C-18 aims to level the playing field between dominant online platforms and news businesses by providing a legislative and regulatory framework that is flexible, modern and encourages market fairness. It would encourage digital platforms that have a dominant market position to enter into voluntary commercial agreements that fairly compensate Canadian news businesses for the use of their online news content.
The House of Commons improved the bill with an amendment that now specifies that this rule does not require journalists to operate at arm’s length from the business. 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 isolated towns and villages, as well as ethnic media, will benefit from this bill. So will those Canadians who depend on local outlets for information on everything from the daily weather forecast to the reasons for a municipal tax hike.
Government shouldn’t pick winners and losers; “Big Tech” monopolies shouldn’t either. Yet, that is precisely what has been happening leading up to the introduction of this bill. To thwart it, the web giants 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. What C-18 does is allow 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.
C-18 is urgent and essential for the news sector. While it is true that the number of other independent outlets is growing thanks to the increased ease of developing products for the web, Canada has lost more than 460 outlets since 2008. Most recently, we have seen significant layoffs at Postmedia and Overstory Media Group.
It goes without saying that this bill requires appropriate and robust consideration, but its passage must be expeditious, given the perilous state faced by so many outlets.
Senator Peter Harder represents Ontario in the Senate. He is the Upper Chamber’s sponsor of Bill C-18 and the former Government Representative in the Senate.
A similar version of this article was published in the February 14, 2023 edition of the National Post.