Explainer: What does Bill C-18, the Online News Act, mean for your access to news?

The passing of the Online News Act has led Google and Meta to threaten blocking news content for Canadian viewers. Dilshad Burman with what it means for you and our democracy.

By Dilshad Burman

The government of Canada recently passed Bill C-18 — “An Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada,” commonly known as the Online News Act — in a bid to protect Canadian journalism. But the response from big tech companies, including Google and Meta, means there could potentially be less news on your social media feeds.

Professor Daniel Tsai from the University of Toronto explains that Bill C-18 lays the groundwork to charge big tech companies for Canadian news content made available on their sites, like search results on Google and links published on Facebook and Instagram.

“So [tech companies] would compensate Canadian news media organizations for the revenue that they’re taking away in terms of online advertising,” he says.

“Put this in perspective– just between the duopoly of Google and Meta, they have 80 per cent online advertising market share — that’s the vast majority of advertising in Canada.”

He adds that the bill is looking to preserve Canadian news media organizations and give them a fighting chance.

“The reason is, in the course of the last 15 years, more than 450 local Canadian news sites, newspapers and so forth have gone out of business, and that’s due to the huge economic power and influence of big tech — they basically put them out of business,” he says.

As per the explanation on the government’s website, Bill C-18 imposes an “obligation on dominant digital platforms to negotiate” compensation with news media organizations — as was seen when Australia passed similar legislation.

“In Australia they passed legislation — which is what Canada’s following — but they never had to get to the point of actually taxing big tech because the threat of legislation was enough to get the parties to negotiate a settlement,” he says.

However in Canada, things didn’t go the same way, with both Google and Meta saying they will begin blocking news content on their platforms in Canada.

“Even though [Australia] passed the law, they were able to settle the compensation directly between publishers and and big tech. Whereas in Canada, [the government] was hoping the same thing would happen … without necessarily coming up with a regulatory framework. That’s where all the problems started — the uncertainty in terms of compensation caused Facebook and Meta to push back and say, we’re just going to block all the news,” says Tsai.

Some Instagram users are reporting that the censoring of news content has already begun. In place of photos and videos on news accounts, some see a message that reads “People in Canada can’t see this content. In response to Canadian government legislation, news content can’t be viewed in Canada.” Attempting to share a news link on Instagram elicits an error message that says the action is not possible for the same reason.

The end result is that Canadians will not have access to news where many find it the most – scrolling through their social feeds.

“In Australia, Google experimented with that and they blocked out news, and that resulted in a certain segment of the population that they were experimenting with, [not actually seeing] any news about wildfires from legitimate news sources, and therefore those persons could have been at severe risk,” says Tsai.

He adds that if Google and Meta block legitimate news, it creates a climate where misinformation can flourish.

“Studies have shown that even in the current environment that we’re in now, that up to 40 per cent of the information on sites like Google and Facebook includes misinformation. Can you just imagine what would happen if we block out legitimate Canadian news organizations? That number will go up even higher. It poses issues in terms of public safety and how people treat each other,” he says.

“People may not see the truth. They may believe the rumors that they’re reading … and that can also make voters make uninformed decisions, driven by misinformation, [which] can block democracy and can actually impinge on it.”

He adds that an uninformed or misinformed public can also be dangerous.

“Even a public as well educated as the U.S. could find themselves in a situation where you have the January 6 riots and a public that believes that an election was illegitimately won,” he says. “You could have the same situations happen here in Canada .”

Tsai believes there is more wide-reaching reason why Google and Meta are taking this stance on Bill C-18.

They are afraid that what happens in Canada has consequences in the United States. What happens in Canada will have an impact around the world, and that’s why Canada has to stay strong on this,” he says.

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