The federal government still would like us to think Meta and Google are bluffing about cutting news from their platforms.
The federal government still would like us to think Canada can “lead the world” in standing up to the tech titans.
The federal government still would like us to think its Bill C-18 will save local journalism.
Stubbornly fixated on these myths, the Trudeau administration found itself outflanked this week as Meta did what it had promised all along but the government just wouldn’t believe.
Hour by hour, for weeks to come, news accounts on Facebook and Instagram will gradually shutter and traffic will disappear. Negotiated payments to publishers are on notice to cease. First Meta, then Google will not let Canada set the precedent – “lead the world,” if you will – by taxing each news link they carry and, in legislating so, encouraging other countries to follow suit.
That scheme, that dream, stops here and now.
Over decades, Meta and Google disrupted journalism’s best-laid digital plans by commandeering through their technology stacks the lion’s share of advertising once the preserve of traditional media. News is today only a slender part of how they deliver advertising – a good vehicle, but not necessary for their platforms to thrive.
Rather than pay a tax with no ceiling on the amount, Meta and Google have concluded they can simply scrap news in Canada on their platforms and skirt a big headache. And they have a point the government won’t acknowledge, must less accept: that, far from threatening journalism, they have helped it find a digital audience it would not have otherwise through search engine results or in their feeds.
It has proven relative peanuts to them, but the main course to media.
In crafting C-18, the Trudeau government naively thought it had uniquely found a financial solution for digital journalism. If publishers needed a boost, it thought, taxing the behemoths posed the solution. It assumed Meta and Google had no choice but to capitulate.
Instead, as Meta walks away and Google seems ready to follow, it is time the government realizes it has crafted the worst of all worlds – the end of existing agreements between dozens of publishers and the tech giants and the suffocation of the majority of digital consumption that finances journalism.
The result would be as if journalism’s business model were set back three decades to an era of newbie websites with small audiences – only this time with a wounded newspaper business. If Meta and Google scrap news, it will be necessary to build an audience and a sustainable revenue stream all over again. Bookmarking will come back.
Without a trace of chagrin, government has pledged – but is vague about how – it will make media whole if the tech firms make good on the threat.
This brinksmanship does nothing to help an uncertain Canadian local news environment. Bell Media wants the federal regulator to quash its local news requirements; if it succeeds, get ready for a broadcast stampede. Conservatives sound serious under Pierre Poilievre about a true reboot of CBC if elected; the idea is certainly helping their fundraising.
As if the bill’s passage weren’t menacing enough on journalism, last week Trudeau shuffled his cabinet just as sensible conversations were emerging. It appeared Meta and Google were working through their concerns with the government, with a likely outcome of a much larger fund for journalism organizations – but no tax. It may not have been of assistance that Pascale St-Onge, a former media union leader moved into the heritage minister’s job, vowed to continue the fight against the titans as the local news saviour.
It's unclear if Meta’s move is a bargaining stunt or, more likely, part of a larger effort to get out of the news field worldwide for Instagram and its three billion Facebook users. Google seemingly has more interest in keeping news part of its search engine’s authority but it, too, will not accept the tax.
Why would they? If they capitulate here, there are dozens of countries clamoring for their own C-18s. The tech behemoths want to make a point, first with Canada and by extension the world, that they have little to lose when news goes missing.
For the time being, though, the Trudeau government thinks it has framed the issue as Big Bad Tech getting its Justin desserts. Won’t happen. This isn’t the fix on the runaway powers of the platforms.
Canada is speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.