Could small Canadian publishers be denied big tech money?

OTTAWA — Three weeks ago, small and medium-sized Australian news outlets made an unusual decision: For 24 hours, they agreed not to post any news online.

A year had passed since the introduction of Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, a law intended to force web giants to pay news publishers for content shared on their platforms. The code has since served as the basis for similar legislation in Canada, which Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez introduced last week.

But while major Australian publishers and networks had struck deals with Facebook and Google, some smaller independent outlets found themselves locked out of the chance to strike their own deals.

To draw attention to the issue, around 30 outlets stopped posting information and instead posted the same red graphic on their websites and newsletters. He wore the hashtag #WaitingOnZuck – a call for Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come to the table and cut deals with the so-called “little guys”.

The decision seemed “unnatural”, said Angela Priestley, co-founder of Women’s Agenda, an independent daily publication. Australia was about to call a federal election, after all.

“It was challenging, but at the same time it was an opportunity to share with our audience what was going on and also what it means to be a small business with no outside investment,” Priestley told The Star.

What is happening in Australia has some small publishers in Canada wondering if a similar fate might befall them here.

Bill C-18, known as the Online News Act, is legislation that would force major platforms like Facebook and Google to enter into deals with Canadian media outlets. The idea is to level the playing field between the news industry and the tech titans who dominate the digital advertising market. Many industry players have been pushing for the federal government to introduce legislation that would address the online ad revenue imbalance, including Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star.

“If we’re going to have this bill, how are we going to design it in a way that it doesn’t lead to the same results as Australia, which in my view really doesn’t support journalism?” asked Erin Millar, CEO of Indiegraf, a Canadian platform that helps launch independent and local news startups.

A failure to support small media, Millar said, would result in a loss of diverse voices in journalism, many of which serve communities at risk of becoming information deserts.

For starters, Canada’s proposed legislation avoids at least one pitfall of Australian law.

In both countries, if the digital giants and media organizations cannot come to an agreement on their own, they can engage in negotiation and final offer arbitration processes that will ultimately lead to an agreement.

The problem in Australia is that platforms have to be “nominated” by the country’s treasurer to be forced to reach an agreement, which the country has yet to apply to any tech platform because web giants have made deals with major networks and publishers.

“They’ve done enough deals for the government to say, ‘OK, you’ve done enough… We’re not going to appoint you right now.’ And that means small publishers, and perhaps medium-sized publishers, have been left out,” said Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation in Australia and New Zealand.

Ketchell and Priestley told The Star that although they reached agreements with Google, their talks with Facebook broke down without any explanation.

Canada’s bill, however, gives the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission the power to monitor compliance and outlines the criteria that must be met for a platform to be exempt from the legislation.

Although the guidelines are part of Ottawa’s effort to make the bill more transparent than its Australian counterpart, Facebook’s and Google’s deals in Australia have been shrouded in secrecy. Similarly, little is known about the deals the two tech giants have made with publishers in Canada.

Prior to the introduction of Bill C-18, Google had already struck deals with 11 publishers, including Torstar, while Facebook’s parent company Meta had signed deals with Torstar and 17 other outlets. It will be up to platforms and publishers to revisit these agreements if the bill passes.

The lack of clarity on who makes deals, on what terms and for what amounts only disadvantages smaller outlets, publishers say.

Under the bill, the CRTC must ask an independent auditor to prepare an annual report on the impact of the bill. This includes details on the total value of the deals, but so far does not include making public which newsrooms receive which amounts.

This is critical information, Millar said, given that small and medium-sized publishers haven’t had the resources to voice their concerns as much as larger organizations.

“There is absolutely no transparency around … the amount of these payments,” she said. “I’ve raised this issue many times with Google. We don’t even know how to join the conversation because we don’t have the basic facts.

PR

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa journalist who covers federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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