Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez speaks to reporters before attending a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on May 17.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Changes are needed to the online news bill to prevent the regulator from snooping in newsrooms and threatening the independence of the press, leaders of media organizations told senators Tuesday.

The Globe and Mail’s publisher and chief executive, Phillip Crawley, expressed concern that Bill C-18, as currently worded, could pose a threat to media freedom by giving the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission “open-ended powers” to compel news organizations to hand over information.

He asked members of the Senate transport and communications committee, which is examining the bill, to accept amendments to protect newsrooms from potential snooping by the CRTC.

“Allowing the CRTC to go fishing for confidential information from news organizations, particularly information related to editorial departments, would be an overreach that is best avoided,” he said.

“The information-gathering powers of the CRTC should be limited to information necessary to confirm the eligibility of news organizations or to investigate a complaint.”

Bill C-18 would compel tech giants to strike deals to pay news organizations for linking or posting to their work.

The regime would be overseen by the CRTC, which would have powers to intervene if media organizations and tech giants fail to strike voluntary agreements. It would have the power to compel news organizations to hand over information.

Mr. Crawley’s concerns were echoed by Paul Deegan, president and CEO of News Media Canada, an organization that represents the news industry. Mr. Deegan told senators the bill needs changes to preserve newsroom independence by restricting what the CRTC can demand to see.

He suggested a series of amendments to tighten up the language of the bill. “We want to limit the role of the CRTC,” Mr. Deegan said. “We don’t want them snooping around in our newsrooms.”

Mr. Crawley said Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez had made assurances that snooping would not happen, but he asked senators to tighten the language of the bill to remove all doubt.

He said without changes to its wording, Bill C-18 could pose a threat to the independence of the press.

“The language as it stands would be, in my view, dangerous to the freedom of the media,” he said.

Mr. Deegan expressed hope the bill would become law by the summer to help small newspapers strike deals with tech giants that post their articles or links to their work. He said small- and medium-sized papers need the framework of the bill to bring the tech giants to the bargaining table.

The bill would enable papers to band together to negotiate compensation with the tech giants.

Facebook, Google and Apple have already signed some partnership deals with news organizations in Canada, including The Globe and Mail.

At the Senate hearing, Pierre-Elliott Levasseur, president of LaPresse, a French-language digital newspaper, said Google had abruptly halted negotiations on an agreement while waiting for C-18 to pass.

“We negotiated in good faith and one day they stood up and called us and said that the negotiations are over,” he said.

Google has said it wants greater clarity on whether existing or potential agreements with publishers will be recognized under C-18.

“We have been negotiating voluntarily with publishers for almost two years and have signed Google News Showcase deals that support over 150 publications across the country,” Google spokesperson Shay Purdy told The Globe. “Unfortunately, the vague and broad exemption criteria under Bill C-18 have created a lot of uncertainty as to whether existing and potential Showcase agreements would be recognized.”

The tech giant is sharply critical of the bill and has asked the government to make changes. It says it should not have to compensate news organizations for linking to their articles.

Earlier this year, Google conducted five weeks of tests of potential responses to the online news bill, which led to around 1.1 million Canadians having their ability to search for news sites temporarily restricted.

Facebook has warned it will block Canadians’ ability to view or share news if the bill becomes law in its current form.

Senators asked the representatives of news organizations what the impact could be if Facebook withdraws from news. They were told it could cost the industry millions of dollars.

Mr. Deegan warned that if Facebook blocks Canadians’ access to news, it could restrict public access to reliable information.

“What would be left on their platform? They’re the plumbing of social media, and in there you have the clean drinking water … which is news. But then you have got all sorts of sewage: the misinformation and disinformation,” he said. “Really what this bill is about is ensuring that local news survives.”

Senators asked representatives of the news media about the CBC, which is state funded, getting federal and commercial advertising.

Mr. Deegan said the news industry is “competing head-to-head” with the state-funded broadcaster for scarce advertising revenue. “The CBC should be free of commercial advertising,” he said.

He called on the federal government to spend more money advertising in newspapers, including local papers.

“We need the feds to step up,” he said. “Federal ad dollars shouldn’t be going to the CBC, and frankly private-sector ad dollars shouldn’t be going to their news and current affairs properties.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe