On CTV News Channel the other day, the big story was Google’s agreement to fork over $100-million annually to the Canadian news media, in exchange for being exempted from the Online News Act, otherwise known as Bill C-18.
After a parade of experts had weighed in on the merits of the agreement in public policy terms, the host cut to the chase. “Was the deal,” she asked her last guest, “a win for us?”
As blatant self-interest goes, this had the advantage of frankness. Most of the time the Canadian media manages to cover the Trudeau government’s efforts to prop up the Canadian media in a manner that suggests it has anything but its own interests in mind. It’s not about us! No, no, no. It’s about basic fairness. It’s about standing up to Big Tech. It’s about the dangers of disinformation. It’s about Democracy Itself.
But then, after the Google deal, that particular bit of humbug is a little harder to sustain. Whatever effort there might have been to pretend there is a principled basis to the government’s attempted shakedown of Google and Facebook has officially collapsed. The shakedown is now explicit.
No longer can it be pretended that the payment is in “compensation” for linking to Canadian news stories. No longer will there be the sham of negotiations between the platforms and a horde of Canadian news organizations on the exact amount of the payment, as a prelude to the CRTC imposing a deal.
Rather, it will be a single, capped, lump-sum payment, to be divided up and distributed by the industry itself. (That should be fun to watch.) That, rather than the smaller-than-expected amount of the loot, is the real measure of how much the government gave up to get the deal. They, and we, have been exposed as not only extortionists, but frauds.
There never was any legitimate principle, you understand, behind the forcible redistribution of income from GoogleFacebook to the Canadian news media. The principle was no more complicated, or profound, than “they have money and we don’t.”
That some of the advertising revenues that now go to Google and Facebook used to go to us is irrelevant. They didn’t take it from us. They simply offered advertisers a better service. You might as well order Toyota to compensate General Motors for building better cars.
So, lacking a genuine grievance, the industry invented one. The platforms were stealing our content! Not only that, but they were selling ads against it – getting rich off the sweat of Canadian journalists, a privilege formerly reserved to the media’s owners.
Sadly for an industry that supposedly lives or dies by its credibility, these were transparent lies. Google and Facebook do not steal our content: they link to it. They promote it, in other words, sending millions of readers to our pages, every day, for free. They use no more of our content than it takes to make an intelligible link: the headline, plus a few additional words, known as a “snippet.”
(Here I must in all fairness acknowledge the outstanding rebuttal offered in a recent editorial by the owners of the National Post: “This misunderstands the effort and expense that goes into a credible headline.”)
As for the notion that Google and Facebook’s fortunes were built on our links: have a look at a page of Google news search results. There are no ads. Facebook, for its part, appears to have suffered no loss of readership for having elected, in the spirit of the legislation, to stop “stealing” our content.
We need them, in other words, far more than they need us. So calamitous, in fact, has C-18 been for the industry that the government took the opportunity of the Fall Economic Statement to enrich and extend the “temporary” tax credit for news organizations’ labour costs.
Once, the industry might have rejected these sorts of handouts, especially at a time when much of the public has come to doubt its impartiality: of all the ways to demonstrate your independence from government, massively increasing your dependence on government must be among the worst.
The worst part is, none of this will do anything to fix our problems. Certainly it will do nothing for the many small startups that have been springing up across the country, most of which won’t see a dime of the money. But even the legacy dinosaurs will reap no benefit from it, really. All it will do is tell us all to sleep a little longer, to put off the hard decisions we need to make for another day.
The future of news lies in finding and keeping willing, paying readers – not in extorting unwilling foreign billionaires, or sponging off the taxpayers. Perhaps that is a little clearer now than it was a week ago.