In April 2022, the Canadian government proposed Bill C-18—the Online News Act. The bill aims to promote fair compensation for Canadian news outlets by any digital news intermediary—including search engines such as Google—that use their content. Bill C-18 has currently reached its second reading, where the Senate is discussing its principles and potential amendments.
The Government of Canada’s website explains that “search engines and social media services fall within the definition of digital news intermediary,” but messaging services intended for private communication between users are not included in the bill. As Bill C-18 aims to address equity in the news industry, the act provides a framework for negotiations, where influential and dominant digital news intermediaries may have significant bargaining advantages over a news outlet. To determine this, market position and the size of the digital news intermediary will be considered.
News outlets involved in negotiations under the act must be considered a “qualified Canadian Journalism organization,” an example being The Globe and Mail Inc. Alternatively, the outlets must meet various statutory criteria, such as having operations in Canada and two or more journalists regularly employed.
Bill C-18 specifically targets how news content is made available to audiences rather than its production. Brett Caraway, an associate professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology explains the difference in an interview with The Medium: “Google or Facebook is not paying for content that they’re reproducing—this isn’t a copyright case. The bill requires them to pay for a link to an article.”
Professor Caraway explains that the internet and the digital consumption of news has contributed to rising government interest in the role of digital intermediary platforms. “Journalism has been adversely impacted by the internet and the culture of sharing, it’s hard to convince people to pay a fee [to access news sites],” he explains.
In addition to the internet’s easy and free access to content, Professor Caraway explains that targeted advertising has “allowed digital platforms to generate large revenue streams from advertising.” On the other hand, news outlets generate less profit as they are unable to collect large amounts of data for targeted advertising.
Bill C-18 intends to compensate news outlets, but corporations like Google have already shown resistance to such policies. On February 22, 2023, Google began blocking some of its Canadian users from accessing news. In a written statement to The Canadian Press, Google spokesman Shay Purdy stated that Google is “briefly testing potential product responses to Bill C-18 that impact a very small percentage of Canadian users” for around five weeks.
Professor Caraway believes that the restrictions to news content accessibility will become tech giants’ answer to the bill if passed, saying: “The Canadian government is overestimating the significance of the Canadian market to US tech firms.”
As a concluding thought, Professor Caraway raises concern for Canadian news organizations should Bill C-18 be passed. “I just don’t think there’s that much advertising revenue accruing to Facebook and Google from Canada to make it worth their while to negotiate with every Canadian news content creator,” he says. “They’re just going to pull the rug out from underneath Canadian news content creators by making it really difficult to draw traffic to their websites, where advertising margins are [already] so small.”