This month, Canadian news publishers, members of trade group News Media Canada, published an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose administration holds a minority of seats in Parliament. The letter appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the country.
At stake, they argued, is nothing less than the “fate of [Canadian] democracy.” “[T]he health of our democracy depends on a vibrant and healthy media. To put it bluntly, that means that you, Prime Minister, need to keep your word: to introduce legislation to break the Google/Facebook stranglehold on news before the summer recess. It’s about political will — and promised action. Your government’s promise,” the letter read.
It was an urgent call for the introduction of legislation based on the Australian model that aids news publishers in their struggle to survive against the monopoly power and foreign dominance of U.S.-owned digital platforms.
Addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the letter calls the legislative inaction so “shocking” that it demanded the unprecedented collective action.
“For months, you and the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Steven Guilbeault, have promised action to rein in the predatory monopoly practices of Google and Facebook against Canadian news media. But so far, all we’ve gotten is talk. And with every passing week, that talk grows hollower and hollower,” it read.
Their letter held an urgency derived from the potential end of the parliamentary session with no assurance of legislative continuity after a likely end-of-June election. If a new coalition gains political sway, that could require starting at “ground zero,” according to one Canadian publisher who gave INMA a look at the political workings that are shaping the future of the legislation — and Canadian news publishers. Even without an election, the parliament would not normally resume its sessions until September 20.
“[W]ith the summer parliamentary recess approaching and the strong possibility of a fall general election, words alone will not sustain Canadian journalists through the long months of legislative inaction and relentless power plays by Google and Facebook,” the letter read.
Digital platform response has been aggressive. One publisher told us that the two digital platforms have unleashed a large coterie of lobbyists. Another told us both Facebook and Google are making offers to publishers to beat legislation, which NMC says is necessary because of disparity between offers and revenue if the Australian model implemented, and without which, the letter said, “the two multi-nationals will continue to use their market dominance to drive terms that are in their interests.” The publisher told us only 14 small publishers have signed up for Facebook News (some of whom signed the open letter). Last week, Google announced that nine publishers have signed with its Showcase product.
Legislation: past, present, future
What one publisher we spoke with called “legislative delay tactics” have delayed the introduction of the legislation. And in the event of a political turnover, another year could easily pass before it returns to the legislative agenda, despite bipartisan acceptance of the need for it, a Canadian INMA member told us. In the meantime, news publishers’ COVID-triggered government subsidies are running out.
Other publishers told us by e-mail that, as a group, they are in frequent — “every other day” —and regular contact with the Trudeau administration. They also said the Heritage Department has committed to getting a policy statement out, with “cabinet consent,” which would allow the legislation to move forward over the summer break and for a “first reading” in the early or late fall, depending on whether or not an election takes place. Meanwhile, the publishers told us, though Canadian publishers are pushing for collective bargaining, the competition bureau isn’t putting out any ruling on it. (It is more difficult in Canada, where the two units are separate, than In Australia, where they function as one unit, one publisher explained.)
The legislation was part of a three-piece package that Guilbeault considered a priority. One publisher explained to us that when the government “tripped up” on a bill known as C-10, which proposed changes to the Broadcasting Act to require digital streaming companies like Google and Netflix to abide by the same rules as broadcasters, it put the other two bills — digital harms and the regulation of digital platforms in their relations with news publishers — in jeopardy. “The opposition” the publisher said, argued that C-10 would give the government power to regulate individuals posting content to digital platforms. Since a minority government is not in a position to enforce anything, and with the clock ticking, there were weeks of “slogging through committee hearings and debate, all of which ate up time to do anything else.”
Promises made and not kept
In a January letter to Guilbeault, Trudeau asserted the priority of supporting “industries that have been hit hardest by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the art, cultural, heritage, and sport sectors.” And Guilbeault “repeated the government’s commitment to introduce legislation in spring of 2021 on various media outlets …”
“Time and again, you and your government have committed to [backing up new rules with enforcement teeth]. The Minister of Heritage has specifically and repeatedly committed to tabling legislation this spring. But after months of promises, there is still no legislation,” the letter, signed by NMC chair Jamie Irving, said.
“Reporting real news costs real money,” Irving said in a press release. “There are only two ways to cover those costs: advertising and subscriptions. But Google and Facebook use their control of the Internet and their highly sophisticated algorithms to divert 80% of all online advertising revenue in Canada. And they distribute the work of hardworking journalists across the country without compensation.”