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It would be ironic, to say the least, if a bill purporting to save the Canadian news media were instead to hasten its demise. But that seems to be where we are heading with Bill C-18, the Online News Act.

You will recall the premise of the bill. How could you not? It has been pummelled into the public by a thousand media reports – the same media, as it happens, that had so strenuously lobbied for it. So the plaintive melody will be familiar to you: how the media – well, the newspapers – have been struggling terribly, not through any fault of their own, but because (sob) the internet broke our business model; how Facebook and Google got rich selling ads that used to appear on our pages, and what is worse, used our content to draw readers to theirs; how the bill would merely require them to compensate us for this use, or as it is sometimes called, theft.

Distressingly, for a business that is supposedly built on credibility, the whole thing was a crock. Well, mostly a crock. Yes, the newspaper business is struggling – some are, at least: Others seem to be doing rather well of late – and yes, a big part of that is the loss of advertising revenues to the social-media platforms. But we were signal contributors to our own misfortune.

First, we gave away all our content online, without charge. Then we built unreadable, positively user-hostile websites. We were slow to react as advertisers deserted us for Facebook and Google, and when it finally dawned on us that this was a competition we couldn’t win – the platforms had simply built a better mousetrap, as far as advertisers were concerned – we went whining to government to save us: as if we were the only industry the internet had upended; as if the taxpayers were obliged to pay for our mistakes; as if we could so conspicuously prostitute ourselves to the thing we spend most of our time covering – government – without anyone noticing, or without in fact being prostitutes.

But of all the lies we told ourselves and others, the most preposterous was the lie that “the platforms stole our content.” They didn’t steal it. For the most part, they don’t even use it. What they do is link to it. How does a link work? You click on it, and you are taken to the address embedded in it – that is, to one of our pages. Far from stealing our content or our readers, the platforms have been sending readers our way by the millions, there to read our content and see our ads.

They perform a service for us, in other words, the proof of which is the profusion of “Share this” and “Link to this” buttons we plaster all over our stories. We want readers to post our stories to Facebook, Twitter and the rest. As, in fact, we do ourselves, and for the same reason: because we know it benefits us. Because we need the platforms, far more than they need us.

Facebook says it will pull Canadian access to news as Bill C-18 heads for Royal Assent

And yet they do not charge us for this service. They do it for free, even though we make money off it and they, for the most part, don’t. (Have a look at Google News. There are no ads on it.) So, naturally, our response was to insist that they pay us: pay us, that is, for the links we beg our readers to post. Or rather, we demanded the government make them pay us – as earlier we had demanded the government bail us out directly.

I imagine the switch – from government charity to government-ordered charity – did wonders for the publishers’ self-esteem. It was one thing to accept (well, demand) government funding, as a short-term, emergency measure. But you wouldn’t want to make that permanent, would you? To be permanently dependent on government is a position no self-respecting newspaper baron would accept. Far better to be permanently dependent on Big Tech.

Hence Bill C-18. The wonder is not that we persuaded ourselves we were entitled to help ourselves to another industry’s revenues. The wonder is that we appeared to believe they would let us. That the government could slap what amounts to a tax on links – technically, the amount paid is supposed to be the result of “negotiations” between the platforms and the publishers, but who’s kidding whom: With the platforms under a legal “duty to bargain” in a process overseen and enforced by the CRTC? – and the platforms would just … go on linking. Only now, instead of just providing a valuable service to us for free, they would pay us for the privilege.

So it seems to have come as something of a shock to all concerned when Facebook and Google, accused of stealing our content and told they must pay a stiff fine every time they did, promised to stop. That is, they suggested they would stop linking to Canadian news stories, as they had done earlier in response to a similar shakedown attempt in Australia. Some Canadian users have already been blacked out. The rest will presumably follow now that the bill has passed.

The government’s response was comical enough. The platforms, blustered the Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, were “threatening” Canada, as if conforming not only with the letter of the law but the logic of it were akin to breaking it. But the publishers’ response was even more revealing. Essentially it was: Crumbs! Now we’re really screwed.

As indeed they are. The government assumed the platforms were bluffing. It should be very clear by now that they aren’t. The bill was badly designed to begin with – of the $329-million the Parliamentary Budget Office calculated it would extract from the platforms annually, it found nearly $250-million would go, not to the nation’s newspapers, but the broadcasters, including the CBC – and was likely in violation of international trade law.

But in the real world it appears it will not yield a dime in revenues for the publishers, at the same time as it deprives them of the millions of readers social media used to send them. Not that the platforms will stop posting links to Canadian sites altogether – just the ones to which the link tax applies, the “qualified Canadian journalism organizations”: the reputable ones, in other words. So to the list of the bill’s consequences, intended or otherwise, add promoting misinformation.

It would be difficult to think of a more ill-judged piece of legislation, unless it’s Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, which promises to have much the same boomerang effect: In the name of protecting Canadian content, it will marginalize many actual producers of Canadian content – the newer, younger, more adventurous kind, who would rather make art for the world than shelter within domestic content rules. Foreign producers, meanwhile, are already announcing they will steer clear of Canada, rather than risk being entangled in the new legislation.

Was any of this necessary? Maybe C-18 wasn’t the best way to go about it, but shouldn’t the government be doing something to help the news business? You hear this a lot, even from the bill’s critics. But this, too, is based on a false premise. Despite what you’ve heard, the news business is not dying. It is transitioning: from a primarily advertising-financed model to a primarily reader-financed model. Some are having a tougher time making the transition than others; that’s to be expected. This is not an example of market failure, but of business failure.

There’s a lot more going on, of course: a series of transformative changes in communications technology such as the world has not seen in centuries – the internet, social media, now artificial intelligence. How this will shake out in the end, who will be the winners and losers, is anybody’s guess. But drill below the headlines about layoffs and closings at the old-line media and you find a pullulating petri dish of innovation among the online and startup community. Everyone is experimenting. Whole new business models are being developed, and tried. Most will fail; very few will succeed.

Artificial intelligence makes Bill C-18, Canada’s Online News Act, already outdated

The very last thing anyone should want is for government to tip the scales in favour of one technology or another, one business model or another, one publication or another – still less throwing everyone a lifeline. All that the aid that has been provided to date has done is to keep a handful of established publications in business that should have been allowed to collapse long ago. All that further aid, direct or indirect, will do is prolong the agony, locking in talent and resources that might have been better deployed to more promising ventures.

Two things may be said with some confidence. One, the future of the news industry, like most industries, probably belongs to publications that don’t exist yet, applying business models that haven’t yet been devised (or whose superiority has not yet been acknowledged). And two, the ones that succeed will be the ones that are the most adept at connecting with readers: that are best able to figure out what readers want, and how to deliver it to them. Because whatever else might have changed, and will in future, there will always be people – a minority, to be sure, but still a decent number – who want to be informed, and are willing to pay for it. The challenge is persuading them they are getting their money’s worth.

The best way to encourage that process is to get out of the way. All the subsidies in the world won’t produce a thriving news industry if people don’t read what they produce. And here’s the thing: they don’t have to. You can make them pay for news, but you can’t make them read it. Which, then, is more likely to enlist willing readers: an industry that is hungry, desperate for readers – paying readers – because its survival depends on it? Or an industry that keeps being bailed out whether or not it produces anything worth reading?

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