News publishers say ban by tech giants would devastate them

OTTAWA—Canadian news publishers have shed new light on how journalism in Canada could be harmed if big tech platforms make good on their threats to block the posting of their content, should Ottawa’s online news bill pass unchanged.

Jeff Elgie, the CEO of community news company Village Media, told senators studying the bill that Google and Facebook generate more than 50 per cent of his digital company’s web traffic.

“If that traffic was lost, the business would be over,” said Elgie, whose company owns 25 local news publications across Ontario.

Pierre-Elliott Levasseur, the president of Quebec’s La Presse and a director with News Media Canada, said if news sharing was blocked on Facebook alone, the French-language news outlet would take a “financial hit” of under a million dollars.

And Phillip Crawley, the publisher and CEO of the Globe and Mail, said a potential Facebook news ban in Canada would mean a loss of “millions of dollars” for the national newspaper.

What is Bill C-18 and why are Google and Meta worried about it?

The trio were discussing Bill C-18, or the Online News Act: a proposed piece of legislation the Liberals and many media organizations hope to see passed before Parliament rises for the summer. The bill would compel digital giants like Google and Meta — Facebook’s parent company — to strike deals with Canadian media publishers for sharing and directing their users to online news content. The Liberal government views the bill as a way to support a shrinking journalism industry. Ottawa says it has been hurt by the tech titans’ domination of the digital advertising market.

Torstar, which owns the Toronto Star, supports the bill, and currently has deals with both platforms for news sharing.

Both Google and Meta oppose aspects of the proposed legislation, arguing that news content accounts for a small percentage of queries — and revenue — on their platforms. If the bill passes in its current form, Google has signaled it could cut its existing deals with Canadian publishers as it decides whether to wipe news content for Canadians who use its search engine entirely. Meta, henceforth, says it’s ready to pull the plug on all news content posted and shared within Canada on Facebook and Instagram.

Chief among the web giants’ arguments is also their assertion that they drive hundreds of millions of dollars in “free traffic” back to publishers, simply for displaying news content on their pages.

“If Facebook pulls out of news in Canada as they have indicated, it will have a devastating impact on Canada’s digital news ecosystem … Google and Facebook have been the best on-ramps to our local news sites. In the absence of either of them, sustainably launching new sites, or even sustaining recently launched sites might no longer be possible,” Elgie said.

“Even worse, Canadians will no longer be exposed to news in that environment, at a time when voter turnout is at record lows, and we can expect to be flooded with misinformation through technologies like generative AI.”

Why are news publishers concerned about AI?

Generative AI is a form of artificial intelligence that can reproduce text and images when prompted to do so. The surging popularity of AI, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, has sparked concern that false, artificially generated information will swamp the internet.

It’s also raised questions over whether Google’s search engine could be affected by the technology, said the Globe’s Crawley, which added that the search tool accounts for 30 per cent of the newspaper’s online traffic.

“The whole search business could be in a state of flux. So you know, we’re sitting talking here today but the current situation … isn’t going to be the same in 12 months’ time,” Crawley said.

Witnesses before the Senate’s transport and communications committee touted a number of amendments Tuesday that they hope to see built into the proposed legislation, including tweaking a section of the bill critics say gives the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) wide latitude to demand confidential information from news companies.

“We want to limit the role of the CRTC. We don’t want them snooping around in our newsrooms,” said Paul Deegan, CEO of News Media Canada.

“We’ve talked to (Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s) office, we’ve talked to the officials at Heritage. We believe these amendments are doable, and we believe that you can get them done.”

Crawley added he was “more concerned about the threat to independence of media, rather than the loss of a few million dollars,” something he said represented “a much more long-term threat to our industry.”

Will we know how much money publishers receive?

Canadaland’s Jesse Brown, meanwhile, continued to push for a more robust “transparency mechanism” to be folded into the bill, which he said would peel back the curtain of the notoriously mysterious deals and make it clear to Canadians who are getting money from platforms and how much they are receiving.

“Those answers are a secret. And once this bill becomes a law, every qualifying news organization will be in a position to enter into their own secret deal with Facebook and Google. And that secret is poisonous to trust,” Brown said.

“Our proposed amendment would standardize the funding for all qualifying news organizations. Everybody would get the same amount relative to the size of their editorial expenditures, not payroll editorial expenditures,” he said.

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel


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