Online news bill could revive local newspapers in Canada, MPs say

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The Google Canada office in Toronto.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa’s online news bill – which would force tech giants Google GOOGL-Q and Facebook META-Q paying to reuse stories produced by Canadian news outlets — would help revive the waning local news industry, spokespersons for newspapers across the country told a committee of MPs on Friday.

They said local newspapers, which were closing across Canada, haemorrhaging staff and losing advertising revenue, could see a huge injection of funds from tech giants and start hiring again, if the bill becomes law.

“A weakened press, threatened with abandoning its mission and disappearing after decades of existence, seriously endangers our democracy,” said Benoit Chartier, chairman of the board of directors of Hebdos Québec, which represents the local press. independent of the province. Mr. Chartier publishes several local newspapers, including Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, one of the oldest French-language newspapers in North America.

Paul Deegan, president and CEO of News Media Canada, which represents news outlets big and small, said there is now a “significant power imbalance between tech giants and Canadian media.”

He said the bill would allow small newspapers to join together to negotiate deals with Google and Facebook, which has been renamed Meta, for the use of their content.

Facebook, Google and Apple have already signed partnerships with news agencies in Canada, including The Globe and Mail.

The architect of a similar law in Australia, on which Canada’s Bill C-18 is based, told MPs there had been an annual injection of $200m (Australian) dollars into the industry of Australian information since the introduction of the law.

Rod Sims, who was chairman of Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission when it implemented its news media trading code, said the law prompted Google and Facebook to strike deals with almost all news outlets in Australia, including small newspaper groups.

The law also led the Guardian, a British media outlet, to expand its Australian operations and hire many more journalists, he said.

Mr Sims, a professor at the Australian National University, said the aim of the code was to address a massive imbalance in bargaining power between tech giants and the media, which prevented fair trade deals from being struck. .

Like its Australian model, the Canadian bill would require tech giants to enter into agreements with news outlets and pay to publish information or links to articles, if they don’t have it. not already done voluntarily.

David Skok, founder and CEO of The Logic, an independent business and technology-focused media outlet, said the bill is “a safety net forcing publishers and platforms to come together to make deals fair, equitable and transparent that do not favor only those with bargaining power.

But Professor Michael Geist, an internet law expert at the University of Ottawa Law School, warned that the wording of Bill C-18 is flawed and likely to spark legal challenges.

He said the bill contravenes several treaties, such as the Berne Convention, which aims to protect authors’ rights but allows the use of quotations, including those from newspaper articles.

‘There is no doubt that this will be contested on many levels,’ he told the Commons heritage committee.

Jen Gerson, a freelance journalist and co-founder of The Line, an online newsletter, expressed concern that the bill would “backfire dramatically”.

She said news publishers, rather than platforms, would benefit if Google or Facebook published links to news articles. Ms Gerson warned that Facebook and Google could respond to the law by “restricting access to mainstream news articles”.

The Australian law has provoked a backlash from tech giants. Facebook has protested by temporarily blocking news on its platform across Australia.

Google has written to every MP and senator saying there are multiple flaws in Bill C-18 as well as “misconceptions” about how an online news law would work in practice.

The proposed law would prevent tech giants from penalizing or privileging news outlets they have agreements with.

Google said this could affect how it ranks news on its search engine and moderates content. Currently, the search engine elevates information from “trusted sources”.

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