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Test your knowledge of current events! Take this quick quiz:

  • When Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault recently declared “the Canadian government stands with our Australian partners and denounces any form of threats,” was he referring to a) the recent interrogation of two Australian journalists earlier this month by police in China, b) the larger campaign of intimidation in which the People’s Republic has engaged, not only against Australia but Canada, or c) Facebook?
  • Who did Mr. Guilbeault, a former environmental activist, recently compare to “big polluters”? A) The tobacco industry, b) the auto industry, or c) Facebook?
  • What common online practice did the minister recently describe as “immoral” and “unacceptable”? A) body shaming, b) revenge porn, or c) linking to news articles on Facebook?

If you answered c) to all three questions, you have some idea of how unhinged this government has become lately on the subject of Facebook and all its works. But, of course, the government has more than Facebook in its sights. The minister’s escalating attacks on the social-media giant are intended to soften the ground for the broader assault to come – the Throne Speech will mark its formal launch – whose objective is nothing less than government regulation of the internet. All of it. From whatever source, domestic or foreign. Facebook is just the casus belli, the Gulf of Tonkin incident if you will.

If you think I’m exaggerating, you have not been listening to Mr. Guilbeault, or reading the report he received earlier this year from the federal Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel. The panel, which appears to have influenced his thinking heavily, recommended the most audacious regulatory grab in Canadian history, bringing the whole of the world wide web under the purview of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

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“All media content undertakings,” in the report’s imagining, including “international online platforms,” so far as they had “significant Canadian revenues,” would be required to register with the CRTC (to be renamed the Canadian Communications Commission, in recognition of its new panoptical role), whose willingness to register them would depend on their willingness to abide by its conditions. A licensing system, in other words.

The conditions would include Canadian content quotas, local spending requirements and sales taxes. They would apply not only to original content providers, but to aggregators such as Google and social-media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and whatever the kids are into now. And yes, the report was clear, the new regulatory regime would apply to newspapers, even if they were exempt from some of its specific obligations.

The minister’s initial reaction to this last proposal (“frankly, I’m not sure I see what the big deal is”) was revealing enough, even if it was later recanted under fire. But the government needn’t impose a formal licensing requirement on the newspaper business – the industry has already submitted to its equivalent. Indeed, it demanded it: a system of government funding, whose beneficence would be restricted to “qualifying” news organizations, i.e. newspapers. The last budget allocated $595-million over five years to this mortifying purpose.

Such is the industry’s sense of entitlement, however, and such is its disavowal of any responsibility for its current state, that mere direct government aid is not enough. Hence the demands, which the minister is in haste to fulfill, to force Facebook and Google to hand over a share of their revenues to the news business.

This is usually expressed, not least in the newspapers' own pages, as a matter of elemental fairness. FacebookGoogle should, it is said, be forced to compensate news sites for using our content. In the more colourful formulations, the social-media sites are said to be “stealing” our content, on which they are supposed to earn “billions” in revenues.

What, in reality, does that “content” consist of? Links to stories on news sites, together with short “snippets” of copy: what are called “quotes” when newspapers use them, which is often and without compensation. In the case of Facebook and other sharing sites, the links are posted mostly by readers; Google employs an algorithm.

This is the “immoral” and “unacceptable” practice, the new “pollution” to which Mr. Guilbeault refers: posting links that send readers directly to our sites. Indeed, most of the industry’s traffic these days, millions of readers and billions of page views annually, comes to us from Facebook and Google. Those readers are worth hundreds of millions of dollars to us annually. It would probably cost us a good chunk of that to find and attract them on our own. Facebook and Google send them to us … at no charge.

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So harmful are Google’s activities to our industry that we embed hidden keywords in every page to attract the attention of its searchbots. So toxic is Facebook that news organizations post little links on each page encouraging readers to “Share this” – where? On Facebook. Just to be sure, we post links to virtually all of our content on Facebook ourselves.

The notion that we should be compensated for the traffic Facebook and Google send our way, often at our behest, is bizarre in the extreme. Should Facebook, by the same logic, have to compensate restaurants for the links readers post to their favourite eateries? Or why stop there? Newspapers also post links to other businesses: the people who advertise with us. Surely, rather than charging advertisers, we should be paying them.

This has nothing to do with fairness, in other words. It’s a shakedown, pure and simple. But it is hostage to its own illogic. The reality is that the news business needs Facebook and Google far more than they need us. News sharing accounts for only a tiny fraction of either company’s revenues. And news sharing in Canada is a tiny fraction of that.

To other countries' demands that they should pay what has been aptly called a link tax – Australia, with whom the minister was at such pains to affirm his solidarity, is the latest to make the attempt – both have simply declined to continue linking to those countries' news sites.

Or rather, to the sites to which the link tax applies: the traditional news sites, with their commitment to serious, fact-based reporting and responsible journalism. Which leaves, well, the fake news sites: the ones full of conspiracy theories and other disinformation. That’s who will benefit most from this.

Goodness knows Facebook, like other social-media sites, has a lot to answer for – the hate speech, the privacy violations and the like. The news business, likewise, is undoubtedly in a lot of trouble. But Facebook didn’t kill the industry, and taxing Facebook isn’t going to revive it.

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