Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Kurl: Canadians stuck in middle of standoff over news content online

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Meta and Google show no signs of backing down on Bill C-18. Many Canadians are coming to the conclusion that if big tech won’t blink, then government should.

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In the worsening game of chicken between the federal government and big tech over Bill C-18, it may be useful to better understand what Canadians news consumers themselves think. The problem is that their own conflicting views over the issue do not indicate a clear path forward

To recap: Parliament passed C-18, also known as the Online News Act, on June 22. Traditional sources of revenue for mainstream news organizations have evaporated over 20 years of increasing digital-only news consumption that media outlets offered consumers largely for free. The intention of the law is to force technology companies Meta (which owns Facebook) and Google to pay Canadian news organizations for the original reporting content that is shared on their massive platforms.

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But you know what they say about intentions. In response, both Meta and Google, who do not wish to be forced into such arrangements, have doubled down, saying that when the law takes effect in six months, they will move to block the sharing of Canadian news from their sites.

Come winter, this could create scenarios where searching Google News for, say, news reports about foreign election interference, or inflation, or how your long-suffering home team is faring, will yield absolutely no Canadian-originated or sourced information. Are you someone who likes to link to Canadian news on your Facebook feed to share with friends? Or someone who looks for the Canadian news your friends are sharing on Facebook? You’ll be out of luck too.

New data, soon to be released by the Angus Reid Institute, will reveal just how consequential losing access to Canadian news via those tech titans would be. The data, unsurprisingly, shows that hardly any of us are actually paying news organizations in our own country for the information they report. If you’re reading this very column in the print edition of a physical newspaper you subscribe to, you know you’re one of a dwindling number of people in Canada to do so (and the publishers thank you!).

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More likely, you’re reading this online, either because you pay for a digital subscription – or, frankly, far more likely despite the fact that you don’t. It’s also more likely that you didn’t come across this by searching specifically for the Ottawa Citizen’s opinion page, but because someone in your social media network shared it, or because the algorithms of Google News thought you’d like to read it.

Back to those conflicting views about C-18. On one hand, most Canadians are unequivocal: big tech should pay this country’s news and information producers for the right to share their content, replacing lost revenue streams, and, theoretically, helping the national news scene to thrive in a time of cutbacks and consolidations.

On the other hand, and given the country tells us they are as reliant on big tech to access their daily news fix as they are on the original-source news sites that produce the content, a majority also express extreme concern over the impending loss of access to the news that keeps them up to date and informed.

So what’s a federal government that’s waded into this issue to do next? Critics have referred to this legislation as yet another one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “own goals.” Defenders of C-18 insist big tech will back down once it realizes just how serious the government is about enforcing it, as the tech giants did in other jurisdictions, such as Australia.

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Meantime, Canadians are nervous. Though there are months to go before the law comes into effect, Meta and Google are showing no signs of backing down. It’s resulting in a significant segment of Canadians coming to the conclusion that if big tech won’t blink, then government should.

Meantime, here’s an idea from this humble news content creator. I know times are tight. But please consider taking out a paid subscription or two and pay news organizations for their work.

Shachi Kurl is President of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation.

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