No news is bad news for Canada: CAJ urges Meta, Google, government, and news organizations to uphold the public’s right to know

Meta declaring that it would remove access to news on its platform is not without precedent. In 2021, for example, the company temporarily cut off access to news for users in Australia in response to the country’s News Media Bargaining Code. Within a week, the California-based social media company reversed course and began to negotiate with news organizations.

“For more than a decade, journalism has been engaged in a complicated and unbalanced relationship with tech platforms,” Jolly said. “It is our hope that cooler heads will prevail and all parties will engage in good-faith efforts to implement a regulatory framework that supports freedom of information and reflects the critical role journalism plays in keeping Canadians informed of decisions that affect their everyday lives.”

How did we get here?

In June, the federal government enacted Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which would compel tech platforms to negotiate with news organizations for financial remuneration for news content shared on their platforms. A report published by the Parliamentary Budget Office last year estimated the Online News Act would bring in over $300 million annually for Canadian news organizations.

Shortly after the bill received Royal Assent, however, Meta and Google responded swiftly and with an iron fist. Meta announced it was unfriending news organizations, from publishers as large as CBC-Radio Canada and The Canadian Press to smaller players, such as The Tyee and CHEK News. It also unilaterally cancelled licensing deals and other pre-existing financial agreements with news organizations. Google, for its part, has said it plans to eventually end agreements with news organizations and restrict Canadians’ access to Google News and Showcase pages.

“It is extremely troubling that the moment these private companies are subjected to democratic oversight, and other collective bargaining obligations, their immediate reaction is to set fire to their lofty and long-held rhetoric about building an informed public,” Jolly said. “Like any autocratic government, these powerful tech giants are limiting freedom of speech and thought to get their way.”

We note there is little chance of unanimous thinking with regards to the potential impacts of the Online News Act, particularly across our association’s diverse membership. That said, the CAJ strongly believes Google, Meta and other social media platforms must play a role in strengthening journalism in Canada.

While critics of the legislation have frequently labelled the Online News Act as a “link tax,” one factor that is seldom discussed in greater detail is the reality that tech platforms are currently using news content, produced by journalists, to train artificial intelligence models in order to compete for the trillions of dollars in potential AI revenue.

With the actions Google and Meta are taking in Canada, they are showing the world that they are willing to limit a nation’s access to information rather than risk current and future revenue.

“What has become obvious is Meta and Google refuse to provide fair compensation for the news content on their platforms that is integral to their business models despite the fact that every country in the world that respects copyright has laws around payment for use of content,” Jolly said.

“Radio stations pay to play songs. Broadcast news organizations buy video to use in newscasts. Newspapers pay photographers for their photos. Tech platforms should not be exempt from paying for content that feeds algorithms and helps their bottom line.”

What happens next?

In the coming weeks, the federal government will be publishing important details that will be critical to establish a fair and transparent regulatory process. This exercise will have a considerable impact on shaping the future of Canada’s journalistic and information ecosystem.

While Meta has said it is not interested in participating in the process, this does not change the fact that Canadians have the fundamental right to a free press. Governments, similarly, have the obligation and the right to create policies that will support journalism.

Ottawa has responded to these threats from tech platforms by pulling government advertising dollars from Meta, an action that has been re-doubled by media organizations, labour groups, and other provincial governments alike.

If Canada is truly keen to lead the world in this stare-down with Google and Meta, a two-track approach is needed.

The first is a longer-term task that will address the need for Canada to undertake a comprehensive review of its copyright laws, such as the one recently undertaken by the European Union. Around the world, governments and individual lawmakers are only beginning to understand the sweeping changes coming from the exponential growth of generative artificial intelligence.

Second, and more pressing, is the need for Ottawa to ensure that the regulations associated with the Online News Act are implemented fairly, equitably and transparently.

The CAJ maintains that any financial remuneration extracted from tech platforms be directed towards expanding the number of editorial positions available in what are rapidly-contracting Canadian newsrooms. The public interest is best served through the production of more public service journalism.

“Our message to the federal government is simple: Don’t back down or cave into pressure tactics,” said Jolly.

“Platforms will, no doubt undertake complex strategies to seek exemptions, particularly as it relates to small, start-up, BIPOC-led news organizations. Foreign-owned tech companies, however, cannot be allowed to dictate winners and losers when it comes to the right to know of Canadians. The eyes of the world are looking to Canada to see how this process plays out.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists is the country’s largest professional organization that serves to advance the interests of journalists from coast to coast to coast. The CAJ’s primary roles are public-interest advocacy work and professional development for its members.

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What may change is how you find us, but there are some simple steps you can take right now to ensure that you’ll always have easy access to free local news coverage.

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READ MORE: Prepare to lose access to local news on Facebook, Instagram and Google

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