Senators say they will not be rushed by the federal government into pushing through its online news bill after it passed the Commons this week, as Facebook renewed its threat to block Canadians from viewing news on its site.
Facebook said the bill passed by MPs will primarily benefit broadcasters such as the CBC, rather than regional and local newspapers, and urged the Senate to look closely at its implications.
When it returns at the end of January, the Senate will begin scrutinizing Bill C-18, including in its transport and communications committee, which has the power to call witnesses.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez says he is keen for the bill to become law to help Canada’s hard-pressed news industry, which has seen huge amounts of advertising revenue migrate to Google and Facebook from newspapers.
The bill would make Google and Facebook compensate media for posting links to their work, or republishing their news reports.
“Four hundred and sixty-eight newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites have closed between 2008 and last August. Seventy-eight of them have closed since the beginning of the pandemic. This bill is about them,” Mr. Rodriguez told The Globe and Mail. “I’ve been meeting with and listening to senators for months. I respect their role to do this important work with the time they need to get it done.”
“I look forward to working with senators again to get Bill C-18 passed as quickly as possible when Parliament returns in the New Year, so that smaller, local news organizations get the support they deserve and need.”
But senators told The Globe on Friday that they will not be pressed into waving through the bill.
Senator Paula Simons, a journalist for 30 years, said she thought the bill was flawed and “dubious” and she had “grave misgivings” about it.
“The Senate is not in the business of rubber-stamping bills,” she said.
Senator Leo Housakos, Conservative chair of the Senate committee, said he was " looking forward to taking a closer look at C-18.”
“I can say that there are some troubling aspects of C18, namely that … it won’t benefit those the government purports it will benefit, i.e. independent local media, but rather the large broadcasters, including and perhaps mainly CBC,” he said.
A report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) estimated that broadcasters, including the publicly funded CBC, would get most of the $329-million a year that the federal online news bill would inject into the news industry if it becomes law.
The analysis in October by the PBO, an independent body that provides economic and financial analysis to MPs and senators, concluded that newspapers and online media would get $81,550,000 a year, while broadcasters such as the CBC, Bell, Shaw and Rogers stand to get $247,677,000.
The Heritage Department has estimated that the bill will raise $150-million a year in compensation for the news industry in Canada. It told The Globe this week that its “estimate was informed by what was known about the value of the agreements in Australia.”
The department said there was now more information about the impact of the agreements between newspapers and Google and Facebook in Australia, though it had not yet updated its analysis.
It said it had “used the value of outcome of the agreements in Australia as the starting point, whereas the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s methodology used estimates of the costs of creating news content.”
Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, who also sits on the Senate committee, said it would not “be rushed” into passing the bill into law.
“I think we should take the time to review it seriously,” she said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty with this bill.”
Senator Pamela Wallin, also a former journalist who sits on the committee, said the Senate’s job was to give “sober second thought” to legislation and it will be doing that with Bill C-18, including improving poor drafting.
“The bill is complicated and in my own mind ill-conceived, and it needs a lot of work,” she said.
Rachel Curran, Head of Public Policy, Canada, at Meta, Facebook’s parent company, urged the Senate to “seriously examine the implications of a bill that will impact how information is shared online and harm innovative local news outlets.”
She said the bill, as passed by the Commons, “forces us to consider removing news from Facebook in Canada rather than being compelled to submit to government-mandated negotiations that do not properly account for the value we provide publishers.”