Heritage minister says he’s open to amendments as Meta slams online news bill

Heritage minister says he's open to amendments as Meta slams online news bill
Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez told a House of Commons committee Friday that he would be open to amendments on a bill he says would make Canada a world leader in supporting a modern free press.

But just after his testimony, Meta released a statement suggesting that it is prepared to pull news content from Facebook in Canada.

The statement from Marc Dinsdale, Meta Canada’s head of media partnerships, outlines concerns with the bill, which proposes to make tech giants pay for the news content they make available on their platforms.

Dinsdale argues that the legislation would essentially make the company pay for content that media companies voluntarily share on the platform, which it says already amounts to “free marketing” for their news products.

“We feel it is important to be transparent about the possibility that we may be forced to consider whether we continue to allow the sharing of news content in Canada,” says Dinsdale’s statement, adding that Meta is “open to working with the government.”

The statement notes Meta’s surprise that it was not invited to participate in the House heritage committee’s study of the bill.

Bill C-18 sets up the framework that would require companies such as Meta to negotiate deals to pay media outlets. It wouldn’t affect any deals that the companies have already made with journalism outfits.

“It’s about the future of journalism in our country,” Rodriguez said. “The act is about making sure that news outlets in Canada get fair compensation for the work that they do.”

Oversight would fall under the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which would develop regulations, investigate complaints and levy administrative penalties if parties contravene the law.

Canada’s move to make internet behemoths pay for journalism and be subject to a regulated arbitration process follows similar legislation passed in Australia last year.

As the Australian bill was being finalized, Facebook removed news content from its platform in that country for several days, but restored it after the government made tweaks to its legislation.

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu asked Rodriguez whether Canada is doing anything to prevent a similar outcome.

“It’s a business decision that has to be taken by the platform,” Rodriguez said.

Under the new framework, Canada would take a similar approach to Australia but with more mechanisms for transparency, the minister said.

“To the point where even the Australians are looking at us and saying, ‘Wow, that’s good, let’s see if we can make the same thing,'” he added. “The world is watching us and I hope we will rise to the occasion.”

News organizations have been largely supportive of the bill, but associations representing smaller outlets have complained that eligibility requirements requiring that newsrooms have two full-time journalists on staff could leave out many struggling community newspapers.

Rodriguez said the bill is not intended to be a “silver bullet” and the government is putting money into other programs that support local journalism. But he said he is open to discussing changes that would address any concerns.

He added that a collective bargaining provision in the bill is designed to support smaller outlets by allowing them to band together when they sit across the table from major platforms.

Google Canada criticized the legislation this week, saying that a provision requiring platforms not to give “undue preference” to particular outlets would prevent the search engine from elevating trusted information sources over “lower-quality” content and disinformation.

And documents Google provided to the heritage committee outline further concerns around how the bill defines “eligible” news organizations.

A too-loose definition means that companies headquartered elsewhere and that do not meet standards of journalistic ethics could still be eligible, as long as they employ two people in Canada, the documents say — raising the possibility of unintentionally including foreign propaganda.

Asked whether he would support amendments that specifically write provisions around journalistic integrity into the bill, Rodriguez said he is always open to discussing changes.

“I’m always ready to listen to suggestions and recommendations,” he said. “My phone is there. You can reach me.”

He said the bill tries to be as “arm’s length” as possible and there is no role for the government to play in picking and choosing which outlets can enter the bargaining process beyond the criteria set out in the bill. “I don’t think it’s up to me to decide and name organizations that would be included.”

CRTC officials who testified at the committee earlier Friday said they would look only to the legislation itself to figure out which outlets are eligible.

Rachelle Frenette, the regulator’s general counsel and deputy executive director, confirmed that in order to consider “journalistic integrity” in the list of criteria, it would need to be explicitly written into the bill.

Chair Ian Scott said there will be challenges along the way but the regulator is well equipped to iron out the details of the bill and oversee its complaints mechanisms.

Scott said he has already consulted with officials in Australia and other countries on how similar provisions are applied in other jurisdictions.

An analysis by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer earlier this month suggested that the measures in Bill C-18 could result in $329.2 million a year being provided to Canadian news businesses.

A breakdown by the PBO suggests that $247.7 million of that would go toward broadcasters that have a presence online, while $81.6 would go toward other journalism organizations.

Asked whether that seems like a fair distribution, Scott said it’s not possible to say whether those numbers will turn out to be accurate. “We don’t know yet … who exactly will be eligible and who will be on the hook, so to speak, to pay for it,” he said.

Marie-Danielle Smith/The Canadian Press

Meta funds a fellowship that supports journalism positions at The Canadian Press.

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