Online News Act not perfect but necessary: Heritage Minister

Online News Act not perfect but necessary: Heritage Minister
Pascale St-Onge, Canada's minister of Canadian Heritage, speaks alongside Frederic Vanasse, general manager and editor of The Canadian Press French services, during the MINDS International conference in Toronto, Friday, Oct. 6, 2023.

The Canadian media landscape is changing too quickly to wait for a perfect version of the Online News Act, federal Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said Friday, while Google once again threatened to remove news links from its ubiquitous search engine over what the company considers serious flaws.

“We need to put our foot in the door and start doing it,” St-Onge said Friday of the Liberal government’s new legislation, previously known in Parliament as Bill C-18, that would require tech giants to compensate media for news articles.

“Even though it’s not perfect, even though some are not pleased with what we’re doing, but this new challenge is coming so fast that we need to address it as quickly as possible,” she said while speaking at the MINDS international news agency conference in Toronto.

St-Onge said that part of the challenge is that the government waited too long to regulate digital platforms, so it’s starting with this law and expects that both the digital media landscape and regulations will adapt over time.

The act, meant to help a struggling news industry, will force digital giants to negotiate deals with news publishers to compensate them for work that is shared or otherwise repurposed on their platforms.

It doesn’t come into force until December, but Meta started removing news for Canadians from its Facebook and Instagram social media platforms this summer in what St-Onge said was an intimidation tactic.

“They’ve used it elsewhere in the world. They are also sending you, and the entire world a message, that they will resist any type of regulation.”

Speaking to the audience of news agencies from more than 20 countries, she encouraged other governments to push back.

“We encourage and stand with other countries who are thinking about taking actions. Don’t be intimidated. It’s our responsibility to protect press freedoms.”

Meta has maintained that the legislation is based on the false premise that Meta and others unfairly benefit from news content, and that the only way it can reasonably comply with the law is to end news availability in Canada.

Google has also argued the legislation, “while well intended … is built upon a fundamentally flawed premise,” as it wrote in its response to draft regulations outlining how the legislation would be implemented.

Google shared its response with media on Friday, saying those draft regulations, which the federal government released Sept. 1, failed to address its concerns.

“We continue to have serious concerns that the core issues ultimately may not be solvable through regulation and that legislative changes may be necessary,” Google Canada spokesman Shay Purdy said in a written statement.

Google also welcomed the possibility that changes could come through the Liberals’ fall economic statement or the next federal budget.

Google said unless its concerns with the bill are addressed, it will remove news links from its search engine by the end of the year.

The company is taking issue with the formula in the draft regulations that would determine whether a company contributes enough of its total estimated Canadian revenue to media outlets to qualify for an exemption from the law.

Last month, federal officials estimated Google would need to offer about $172 million per year to meet that threshold, while the annual price tag for Facebook would be $62 million.

Google said in its submission that figure is much higher than the $100 million it was expecting based on a previous estimate a senior official with the Heritage Department had given a House of Commons committee last December.

The company also interpreted the draft regulations as having no cap on liability.

“This is well in excess of the economic value Google derives from news-seeking queries, and leaves one company single-handedly responsible for defraying an arbitrary and substantial portion of the costs of Canadian publishers,” the company wrote. “Neither the amount nor the structure appears workable.”

Google would not disclose how much it currently pays publishers through its agreements with them, but it would likely have to disclose that information if it were to be regulated by the CRTC.

Google has kept a more open dialogue with the government than Meta, and St-Onge said she had heard the company’s concern about knowing how much they’ll have to pay under the law.

St-Onge said the government won’t be stopping at the news act in its efforts to rein in tech, with legislation also coming on artificial intelligence that will focus on making sure AI use respects peoples’ privacy, and that content generated by the technology is clearly identified.

The law won’t tackle issues around copyright that AI raise, but St-Onge said she has no doubt that there will need to be regulation around that issue ahead.

“It is a first step. But our modern governments are entering a new world, just like we all are, so we have to adapt.”

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2023

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