How did we get here? A timeline on the Online News Act fiasco
How did we get here? A timeline on the Online News Act fiasco

Recently, the Trudeau government’s controversial piece of legislation Bill C-18 was given royal assent, provoking Google and Meta to block Canadian news content from their platforms. 

Google and Meta have warned the government on multiple occasions that it would take drastic measures should the law pass Parliament. Further, industry experts have criticized the bill, going as far as calling it a “shakedown.” However, the government has insisted on pushing through the controversial piece of legislation. 

The clash between big tech and the Trudeau government has many Canadians wondering how they will access news once the Online News Act comes into effect later this year. 

The Online News Act, or Bill C-18, is the latest piece of Trudeau government legislation meant to expand the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) regulatory reach over the internet and Canadian news media.

Tabled in the House of Commons on April 5, 2022 by Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and given royal assent on June 22, 2023, C-18 seeks to force social media platforms and search engines like Facebook and Google to enter into contracts with news outlets for the privilege of hosting links to their articles and news content – prompting Google and others to refer to the bill as a “link tax.” 

The bill was mainly supported by News Media Canada – a lobbying group representing over 500 legacy media outlets including but not limited to TorStar (the Toronto Star, Hamilton Spectator, etc), Postmedia (National Post, Toronto Sun, etc), and the Globe & Mail. 

Canadian legacy media claims market-dominating search engines and social media platforms like Google search, Facebook, and Instagram are unfairly profiting off of the news content of Canadians outlets, siphoning off advertiser revenue which would have otherwise been spent on traditional media. 

News Media Canada successfully lobbied the Trudeau government into tabling legislation that would have the CRTC oversee negotiations between legacy media corporations and big tech, compensating the news sites for links posted to search engines and social media. 

“We thank Pablo Rodriguez, Minister of Canadian Heritage, and his officials for working diligently and quickly to bring forward legislation that will ensure we have a fiercely independent and commercially viable news publishing sector, where local community news thrives alongside a vibrant open web,” said News Media Canada CEO Paul Deegan upon C-18’s introduction in the House of Commons. 

The tech giants argue they have done enough to support Canadian news through their various initiatives and programs.

Google says that they’ve already negotiated agreements with 150 Canadian news publications as part of their News Showcase program, whereby they’ve linked to Canadian outlets 3.6 billion times in 2022 at no charge. Google estimates that this traffic is valued at $250 million annually.

Meta, on the other hand, say they provide Canadian news outlets $230 million in value through the 1.9 billion link clicks in the last 12 months on Facebook. 

On top of that, Meta says they’ve invested approximately $18 million dollars in Canadian news organizations through partnerships and programs. 

During the legislative process, Google, Meta, and industry experts voiced their concerns with the legislation.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist has been a consistent critic of the Online News Act.

“The end goal is negotiated payments for links, backed by the threat of a one-sided arbitration process overseen by the CRTC in which the arbitration panel can simply reject offers if it believes it fails to meet the government’s policy objectives,” said Geist.

“That isn’t a commercial deal, it is a shakedown.”

In October 2022, Meta warned the Trudeau government that they intended to block news content in Canada if the Liberals went forward with passing the Online News Act. From the standpoint of big tech, blocking Canadian news content is an easy way out of having to strike costly contracts with failing legacy companies while still fully complying with the legislation.  

“Faced with adverse legislation that is based on false assumptions that defy the logic of how Facebook works, we feel it is important to be transparent about the possibility that we may be forced to consider whether we continue to allow the sharing of news content in Canada,” said Meta’s media partnerships head Marc Dinsdale.

Meta reiterated its threat to block Canadian news content in May 2023 before proceeding with tests selectively blocking Quebec news content in mid-June. 

Google provided testimony to the House of Commons heritage committee where they challenged the government on the principle that search engines should have to provide payment to news sites for links. 

The company also criticized the bill’s lack of specificity over which organizations qualify as an eligible news business and warned that C-18 would benefit large publishers to the detriment of smaller publishers. 

In February 2023, Google began to test their ability to block access to Canadian news running a test of a small segment of Canadians, a move critics called “unsurprising.”

A poll commissioned by Google and released on October 14, 2022 revealed that a plurality of Canadians agree that social media platforms should not have to pay news organizations for links shared on their platforms, and search engines should not have to pay for links available through their search function.

Despite this, the Trudeau government moved ahead with the Online News Act as Bill C-18 passed in the House of Commons on December 14, 2022, passed the Senate on June 15, 2023, and became law on June 22nd. 

“Thanks to the Online News Act, newsrooms across the country will now be able to negotiate fairly for compensation when their work appears on the biggest digital platforms,” said heritage minister Rodriguez upon C-18 receiving royal assent. 

However, Meta and Google immediately took action. 

“Today, we are confirming that news availability will be ended on Facebook and Instagram for all users in Canada prior to the Online News Act (Bill C-18) taking effect,” reads Meta’s statement on C-18.

Then Google said that they too would be removing Canadian news links from its search and news sections.

“We’re disappointed it has come to this. We don’t take this decision or its impacts lightly and believe it’s important to be transparent with Canadian publishers and our users as early as possible,” said Google’s global affairs president Kent Walker. 

“The unprecedented decision to put a price on links (a so-called ‘link tax’) creates uncertainty for our products and exposes us to uncapped financial liability simply for facilitating Canadians’ access to news from Canadian publishers.”

Heritage Minister Rodriguez has committed to supporting newsrooms with further taxpayer subsidies should Google and Meta move forward with their blocks.

As a retaliatory action against Meta, Rodriguez announced that the federal government would be pulling all of their advertising from Facebook and Instagram, representing $10 million dollars of Facebook’s $117 billion revenue in 2022.

Rodriguez says that the decision to pull advertising from Meta’s platforms and not Google is because Google has remained open to negotiations while Meta has cut contact with Rodriguez’s office for weeks. 

Going forward, the specter of Canadian news content being blocked within the country remains pressing as the government attempts to execute last-minute negotiations to convince Google and Meta to comply with their demands. 

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