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David vs. Goliath: A Battle for Journalism Fairness Online

This month, in his January column, Senator Loffreda (photo) writes about the government’s proposed bill to help news publishers and journalists receive fair compensation for their work that is being shared on the platforms of tech giants like Facebook and Google.  Bill C-18 is currently before the Senate.

I begin most days with a good espresso and my morning news.  Perusing various news outlets and reading articles online is part of my daily morning routine.  Like many Canadians, I access most of my news these days online and, unlike many years ago, we get our news in real-time now, as it happens.

The Internet has certainly become the place where Canadians consume most of their news, whether it be via traditional news outlets or the sites of digital giants like Facebook and Google.  Because of this consumer shift from print to online news, some argue that the well-being of journalism is threatened by the prevalent spread of misinformation and disinformation.  Indeed, recent polls have shown that almost half of Canadians question the accuracy and truth of the information they receive from news organizations. This is a troubling statistic. 

Just over a year ago, Statistics Canada also reported that “the operating revenue of Canadian newspaper publishers declined to $2.1 billion in 2020, down 21.9% from 2018.” This downward trend has been happening for several years already and the pandemic has aggravated the situation.  More and more news outlets, including community-based newspapers, are shutting down.  Nine major urban daily newspapers have stopped printing their Monday editions since October, in part because of lost ad revenues to tech giants.

It’s no secret news organizations are struggling to keep up with industry shifts and to revamp their business model while remaining financially viable (without government intervention).  As the United Nations reported last summer, “the major shift of advertising revenue to social media and search engines over the past decade and the growth in the power of Internet companies controlling advertising technology have further eroded the economic foundations for news media pluralism, facilitated media capture, weakened diversity in news content and made it more difficult for news providers to resist other pressures.”

To help remedy this situation, the federal government tabled Bill C-18, the Online News Act, modeled on Australian legislation.  Like Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, Bill C-18 has generated much interest among parliamentarians, news outlets, digital giants, and other concerned stakeholders, and both bills are currently before the Senate.

Bill C-18 seeks to establish a new framework to ensure fairness in the Canadian digital news marketplace and for independent local news businesses, including rural and remote news organizations, by ensuring that news media and journalists receive fair compensation for their work.  More precisely, digital news intermediaries such as search engines or social media services will be able to negotiate agreements with Canadian media to authorize them to disseminate Canadian media content on their platforms.

In October, Abacus Data conducted a poll on C-18, commissioned by Google Canada, and found that “large majorities believe it is important that the legislation ensures eligible news outlets follow journalistic standards and ethics, that local news is protected and given the resources to continue to operate but they also want search engines like Google Search to continue to work and perform the way they do now.”

Of course, like any piece of legislation, Bill C-18 is not a slam-dunk.  On the one hand, publishers are calling for swift passage because online platforms are not adequately compensating them for the content journalists have created.  On the other hand, digital giants strongly object on the premise that the regulatory framework does not properly account for the value they provide to publishers and journalists.

Regardless of where you land on the issue, there is no doubt that the digital disruption is a real problem for journalism in general and traditional news outlets, particularly local and ethnic newspapers with limited financial means and decreasing advertising dollars.  Is the Online News Act the solution?  It might very well be.  The Senate will be seized with this issue during the coming session, and I know we will have great debates both in the Chamber and in committee.

One thing is certain: something is needed to ensure we have a free and independent press that continues to seek the truth, that remains accurate in its reporting, and that upholds the principles of reliability and objectivity.  We may take that for granted, but it is crucial to a well-functioning democracy in helping its citizens make informed decisions about important issues. 

As the UN wrote, “if independent public interest media cannot survive – let alone thrive – disinformation will flourish, journalists will be further imperilled and societies’ right to information will be undermined.”

The Honourable Tony Loffreda, Independent Canadian Senator (Québec)

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