MP Report: Bill C-18 (Online News Act)

How Canadians see news online could be forever changed by the government’s Bill C-18, The Online News Act, which has been working its way through parliament. It would impose a regime on digital platforms that Canadians use every day to get their news.   

Under the terms of Bill C-18, small, independent media organizations, known as intermediaries, will have to negotiate with the likes of Meta and Google to pay for sharing links to news seen online within Canada.  If they do not, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will force them into arbitration within six months to do so.

First, the Liberal government passed Bill C-11 which will change what people see when searching online. Now, Bill C-18 will change what news articles people will see online.  This potentially has significant implications for journalistic independence and public access to independent news.

The biggest winners will be legacy media. The non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Officer’s analysis on this bill reported more than 75% of the funds generated will go to the three largest legacy media organizations of CBC, Rogers, and Bell, leaving less than 25% for all other smaller, independent media.

Many expressed concerns that the CBC, which is already funded by taxpayers, be included in receiving payments through this legislation.  Conservative MPs and Senator Carignan presented an amendment to C-18 to exclude the CBC so more focus would go to local, ethnic and independent news sources, however, it was voted down by the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc Quebecois.

Conservatives believe in having a strong independent media ecosystem. 

Committee testimony was received as well on the emergence of generative artificial intelligence (AI) and its effects on the news industry where warnings were issued about links to news articles online. One witness from the Globe and Mail said people’s online news viewership “could be disrupted in the next six to 12 months quite significantly by the difference that ChatGPT and generative AI is already making in only six months”. 

Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law has commented similarly on this AI issue. On the overall bill itself, he said, “Smaller independent media outlets, who often depend on social media to build their audiences, will bear a disproportionately larger brunt of the harm.”

Bill C-18 was amended by the Senate, but the final bill is still unable to address the commercial, legal, and policy challenges posed by generative AI. Therefore, none of those businesses are required to engage in negotiations with Canadian news organisations. These critical AI policy questions will not be decided by Bill C-18 and some say the bill is out of date before being implemented.

Many questions remain regarding the definitions of the legislation and how it will be applied. The government's prescription of new and continuing roles to the CRTC has stretched its mandate beyond all recognition and capability.

The CRTC is now tasked with the massive undertaking of implementing Bill C-11 and potentially overseeing the process of online news link sharing with the entire Canadian online news and digital industry with Bill C-18.

In summary, Bill C-18 will make the problem the government is supposedly trying to fix, worse. The losers will be small independent publishers and online innovators. If the government wants to ensure small, regional, ethnic, and rural media get their fair share of ad revenue they must stop pouring money into traditional legacy media - allowing them to lower advertising rates unfairly.

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