Canadian publishers lobby government to level the playing field with Big Tech platforms

By L. Carol Christopher

INMA

Pleasant Hill, California, USA

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News Media Canada (NMC) and Canada’s Liberal government are teaming up to join governments and news publishers around the world in asking — sometimes demanding — that the digital platform giants that use their content begin to pay for it.

In response to a request from the federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault to provide input and background into the process, the Association of Canadian News Publishers published a 38-page report, Levelling the Playing Field, in September and sent it to the government, following open letters published in both February and May.

In the report, NMC sought to “address market failures and anti-competitive behaviour by the duopoly,” using the model that Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code has set: “The strongest pathway forward in terms of its impacts would be utilising the policies and structures developed in Australia in the Canadian context. This would level the competitive playing field, support local journalism, ensure the continued supply of credible news content to Canadian consumers, and strengthen the national economy and federal finances through this pathway forward.” 

The late September "Speech from the Throne" includes a section on the Big Tech-publisher battle: “Web giants are ‘taking Canadians’ money while imposing their own priorities.'"
The late September "Speech from the Throne" includes a section on the Big Tech-publisher battle: “Web giants are ‘taking Canadians’ money while imposing their own priorities.'"

The federal government has not yet indicated what the legislation will look like, and News Media Canada is developing proposals for wording of the legislation, NMC Board Chair and Publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press Bob Cox told INMA. The concept has broad support among political parties in Ottawa, not just with the government.

However, there are factors that could delay legislation. The Liberal government is in a minority situation, which always make it more difficult to pass legislation. As well, it is overwhelmed with efforts to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing other matters to the background.

The report made the following recommendations:

  • Expand the intellectual property rights publishers have over their content (and user data) and requiring platforms license such content before using it.
  • Order platforms and publishers to negotiate and set fair market prices for licenses, including allowing publishers to collectively bargain against platform market power, and arbitration if no voluntary deal is reached.
  • Require digital platforms to disclose to publishers data on the publishers’ audience and prohibit retaliation against publishers, such as blocking their content, with the legal authority to impose large fines for such violations.

“We see no significant differences between the market failure circumstances in the media ecosystems of Canada and Australia to warrant significant modifications,” the report continued. “The code would have a transformative effect on Canadian journalism after addressing the market failures identified .…”

The government responded positively in its September 23 Speech from the Throne, which opened the Second Session of the 43rd Parliament of Canada. According to the Ottawa Citizen, Governor General Julie Payette said in the French portion of the speech that “Web giants are ‘taking Canadians’ money while imposing their own priorities.’”

“Things must change and will change,” she said. “The government will act to ensure [Web companies’] revenue is shared more fairly with our creators and media,” she continued, according to the CBC, which said the speech also “alluded to tackling ‘corporate tax avoidance by digital giants.’”

News Media Canada has designated the week of November 30 as Federal Lobby Week. The association’s members will be provided tools including:

  • How to request a virtual meeting with their members of Parliament.
  • A script for the MP meeting.
  • Print ads to run in their community newspaper the week of November 30th.
  • A follow-up letter to send following the MP meeting.

Economic impact

By the end of April, 50 Canadian news outlets had “recently closed,” 78 had cut staff, and the news industry had lost 2,053 jobs, according to a tally by the Canadian Association of Journalists, as reported by Canada’s CBC, while the Friends of Canadian Journalism estimated that by late September, that number had grown past 3,000. 

A report by the News Media Canada shows the possible economic impact of digital platforms and news media brands reaching new revenue agreements.
A report by the News Media Canada shows the possible economic impact of digital platforms and news media brands reaching new revenue agreements.

“Implementing a similar code to Australia in Canada would maintain the viability of roughly 700 journalist jobs [23% of the September total]— and not just their jobs, but the content they produce and that is in demand by Canadian citizens on developments in their communities,” the NMC report said, adding that maintaining the viability of those journalists’ jobs would have additional economic benefits:

  • Maintaining the viability of 2,100 jobs in news publishing (the additional 1,400 includes supporting personnel).
  • Supporting 6,900 jobs in total, 4,800 of which includes news publishing suppliers.
  • Supporting C$715 million in annual GDP and C$236 million in annual federal taxes.

According to The Toronto Star, “The report found that publishers would recover a whopping C$620 million in payment for their content …” 

“A few hundred print journalists might seem small in absolute terms,” the report said, “but relative to the total number of journalists in Canada, these numbers are substantial.”

It went on to illustrate just what a change would look like in the province of Alberta:

“The 82 journalists supported in Alberta by this pathway could include roughly 25 more journalists working in Calgary, roughly 25 more in Edmonton, and the remaining 32 throughout the rest of the province. These journalists would increase the quantity and quality of coverage of the government, industry, and culture generally in Alberta, improving social conditions in the province.”

The response

Facebook said in an e-mail statement that it welcomed “new rules for the Internet that support innovation, free expression, and the digital economy.” A representative for Google said it “looks forward ‘to continued collaboration with the [Department of Canadian Heritage] to explore new ways to support the Canadian creator and media ecosystem,’” reported the CBC.

In response, the CBC reported that Guilbeault warned, “The days where the [tech] companies could decide just about everything … are over.”

But, said NWC Board Chair and Publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press Bob Cox in an e-mail to INMA, “We’ve already seen a pushback and opponents will make their voices heard.”

Outlook

Canadian publishers anticipate the legislation will be passed with wording similar to Australia’s, but also figure they will have to bide their time in light of the COVID-19 crisis — with some expecting it to be as far out as a year from now, while others hear that it will be “to table” as soon as the end of Q1 2021.

“We learned that government action takes time,” Cox said. “The last major initiative the Liberal government did to help newspapers — a journalism tax credit that pays partial salaries of journalists in newsrooms — was the result of a lobbying effort that started in early 2016. The legislation was passed in 2019 and, though the programme is retroactive to January 1, 2019, it has not yet paid out money to newspapers.”

News Media Canada is lobbying for Ottawa to follow the Australian model, Cox said: Expand intellectual property rights a publisher holds over content and prohibit platforms from displaying publishers’ content without first negotiating access to it, ie. payment for a license to the content. Further, the Australian model sets up a formalised process for negotiations, allows publishers to negotiate as a group and requires arbitration if no voluntary agreement is reached.

I can’t guess what path the federal government might ultimately choose. There are other players involved and they will be consulted as well. We’ve already seen a pushback and opponents will make their voices heard. However, it seems from what the minister has said that the Australian model will have a strong influence over Canadian legislation.

About L. Carol Christopher

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