Canada wants Big Tech to share its riches with news publishers

Who, what, when, how still to be worked out, ironically

The Canadian government this week introduced a law bill that would force the likes of Google and Facebook to pay Canadian news publishers for using their articles online.

The Online News Act was created to address what Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez described as a crisis in the country's media sector that has resulted in 451 outlets disappearing between 2008 and 2015. "We want to make sure that news outlets and journalists receive fair compensation for their work. We want to make sure that local independent news thrives in our country," Rodriguez said in a press statement

Specifically, the proposed law seeks to ensure journalists and publishers get a fair cut of the revenues Big Tech banks from aggregating, distributing, sharing, or summarizing stories; the exact arrangements have yet to be hammered out.

Reactions to the bill from the tech companies concerned, specifically Google and Facebook, included a desire to cooperate with the Canadian government toward a satisfactory solution. Both said they were still reviewing the legislation. 

Canada also took feedback from news organizations and journalists in the run up to the bill's announcement, and officials said "a large majority of submissions stressed the importance for action regarding declining revenues in the news sector." Respondents also said they were concerned about the power imbalance between news distributors and news organizations, though no consensus emerged on how the government should take action. 

Rodriguez said the Canadian bill was inspired by Australia's News Media Bargaining Code, which has the same goal of charging news aggregators to use Australian content. 

Like the Australian bill, the Canadian one gives power to news outlets to collectively bargain with online distributors to reach an equitable revenue sharing model. It includes provisions for developing a regulatory framework for arbitration when agreements can't be reached, and penalizes companies that violate the act, with the power to do so vested in the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). 

Not all news aggregation platforms would fall under the act. It specifically states that platforms with pre-existing agreements (which are still considered fair under the new act) and those which don't present a bargaining imbalance would be exempt, and news intermediaries can apply for exemption if additional criteria are met.

Ultimately, the goal is to "regulate digital news intermediaries with a view to enhancing fairness in the Canadian digital news marketplace and contributing to its sustainability, including the sustainability of independent local news businesses," the act stated. 

Big tech behaving better

As opposed to the tech industry's reaction to the Australian law, its response to Canada has been downright timid. When Facebook heard of Australia's plans, it blocked the ability of users to share any Australian news articles on its social network before agreeing to un-ban the content and enter a peace pact with the government.

Google, meanwhile, said it would pull its search engine out of Australia if forced to pay for news, though has since invested nearly $1 billion dollars to expand staffing and grow its cloud operations in the country.

Australia's bill passed and went into effect on March 2, 2021, and neither Facebook nor Google have left Down Under. Now, with Canada planning to enact the same measures, neither appears to want to fight the prospect of paying more for news.

The Online News Act has only gone through its first reading in Canada's House of Commons, which still gives Big Tech and its allies time to decide if and how to contest it. ®

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