Canadian digital giants and media | Google and Facebook finally brought to heel?

During the introduction of his Bill C-18 which aims to force Google and Facebook to compensate the media, the Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez declared: “A free, independent press is the pillar of our democracy. “It feels good to hear such a profession of faith in the media, because they have been pretty roughed up since the start of the pandemic in the country.

Posted yesterday at 11:00 a.m.

Alain Saulnier

Alain Saulnier
Author of The Digital Barbarians (Écosociété Editions)

But to be this pillar, it is essential for the media to be able to count on a viable ecosystem.

However, we know that 80% of the 10 billion advertising revenues are now monopolized by Facebook and Google. This is what has shaken the business model of our media for twenty years.

Moreover, these platforms shamelessly reproduce texts and media reports without even paying them a penny. Currently, Facebook and Google do not recognize journalists’ copyrights in any way. In short, it is a “loan” never repaid that allows these American superpowers to get rich.

In this sense, forcing Google and Facebook to pay compensation to the media is excellent news. This compensation could reach $150 million per year, said Pablo Rodriguez.

It was time, because 450 media had to close their doors in the country over the past 15 years.

The Minister was inspired by the experience of the Australian model set up last year. He was able to avoid a flaw in this model since, for his part, the Australian minister can interfere in the process of discussion and negotiations of the media with the digital giants.

The new bill instead favors a process of free negotiation over a period of six months to a year.

First, we invite Google and Facebook to undertake negotiations in good faith with all media, large and small.

A “new formula” for the CRTC

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will then oversee mediation as a regulator if there is a disagreement. We will then rely on independent arbitrators whose mediation will be overseen by the “new formula” CRTC. It is that in the mind of the government, the new CRTC will have more and more powers in the future. Remember that Bill C-11 on broadcasting provides that the regulatory body will have jurisdiction over both foreign and Canadian companies in terms of broadcasting, and digital is part of the lot.

The first downside to Bill C-18 is that Quebec could see it as an intrusion into a field of provincial jurisdiction. In fact, the CRTC, a federal agency, has just been given the role of mediator for press companies that, until now, were not subject to this regulatory authority. We are waiting for reactions.

Still, it will also require increasingly high qualifications for the CRTC team. Who will name them? How to ensure the representativeness and sensitivity of the CRTC with regard to the situation in Quebec and within the Canadian Francophonie?

Another downside, in the bill, Radio-Canada is one of the media that will be able to benefit from such remuneration from Google and Facebook. Some will denounce this situation because Radio-Canada already benefits from a budgetary envelope provided by the federal government. Unless, on the government side, this is the announcement of a first milestone in the search for a new method of financing Radio-Canada for the next few years.

Let us remember that the Yale report proposed in 2020 that in its future mandate, Radio-Canada gradually remove advertising from its content. It is to be continued.

All types of media will have six months to reach agreements with Google and Facebook. Otherwise, the CRTC will intervene.

We can already think that it will certainly be easier for the big press groups to negotiate such agreements with the digital giants than for the small media.

David versus Goliath?

Because the challenge of such a negotiation will be much more demanding for the small media. Of course, we will encourage them to do a group negotiation. For my part, I would not bet naively on the good faith of Google and Facebook in a negotiation with the small media. In the past, these giants, whom I called digital barbarians in my last book, demonstrated that they did not respect the laws and challenged the authority of the States in fiscal and regulatory matters.

To be eligible, the small emerging media will have to offer neutral, non-partisan, quality information, the Minister specified. Very good. But who will draw the line? Is media committed to the environment eligible? Or another that multiplies the reports against the digital giants… Or even a media that only offers gossip stemming from rumours? Often, the editorial line of the media, even rigorous, does not necessarily display total neutrality.

What will also happen to the sometimes very assertive media of First Nations and cultural minorities? So we inevitably come back to the role of the CRTC at the end of the day. Big challenge.

Finally, one wonders why Twitter, Donald Trump’s favorite platform when he was President of the United States, is not included in the bill? To this question, we heard the minister say that it would be up to the CRTC to decide.

In conclusion, this bill brings hope. It was time. We hope that despite the minority status of the Liberal government and the opposition looming among the Conservatives, it will be adopted. (Just think of the statements of the Conservative Party leadership candidate, Pierre Poilievre, against Radio-Canada.)

If the bill is passed as is, then we will have to monitor the first year of its application very closely, especially for the smaller media that add to the diverse offer of viewpoints. It is with use that we will be able to say whether the law will have succeeded in providing in detail the implementation of a universe that, to date, we do not really control.

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