A few days ago, I tried to post an interview on Facebook that journalist Brendan O’Neill had conducted with me about a story I recently wrote for The Free Press.
The piece, which I reported with Ari Blaff, was a tragedy: Toronto high school principal Richard Bilkszto committed suicide after being tarred as a racist in a diversity, equity, and inclusion training session. It’s an important and troubling story, and I assumed many of my friends and family would care to hear the interview.
After trying to post the link, I received a message from Facebook informing me: “In response to Canadian government legislation, news content can’t be shared.”
I was surprised, but then I remembered: in June, Canada had adopted Bill C-18, the Online News Act. The law forces social media companies to pay online media companies to link to their content. The government portrayed it as a matter of “fair compensation,” a way of ensuring that media companies were paid for the news they reported. But really it was an effort to prop up legacy media dinosaurs, like Bell Media and Postmedia, that had failed to adapt to the new digital landscape.
“Journalism isn’t free,” Andrew MacLeod, the president and CEO of Postmedia, the company that owns the National Post (where I was previously a regular contributor), said. “Bill C-18 is a first step in ensuring news media content creators can be fairly compensated for the costs associated with keeping Canadians informed and begins the journey toward a viable online ecosystem.”
Under the new law, social media companies have to enter into “balanced negotiations” with news providers. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission would oversee the process.
Instead of complying, Meta, the company that owns Facebook, gave the Canadian government a huge middle finger. “The legislation,” Meta said in a June 1 statement, “is based on the incorrect premise that Meta benefits unfairly from news content shared on our platforms, when the reverse is true. News outlets voluntarily share content on Facebook and Instagram to expand their audiences and help their bottom line.”
The real victims are Canadian citizens and Canadian democracy. We can bemoan the enormous power the Silicon Valley platforms have amassed. And anyone who cares about free speech and the pursuit of truth should do everything in their power—in our case, through investigative journalism, including uncovering the shadow banning at Twitter—to ensure that these platforms do not give preference to one political camp or another.
But for a democratically elected government to, in effect, limit its citizens’ access to news? That’s unbelievable.
I spent much of my childhood in the United Arab Emirates, and I’ve traveled extensively in Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. This is the sort of thing you expect in those places—where there is no constitutional tradition to anchor individual freedoms.
Of course, Canada cares much less these days about the free exchange of ideas, and much more about imposing a radical agenda that many (if not most) Canadians, I suspect, are skeptical of: travel bans, the debanking of truckers, medically assisted suicide, race-based criminal justice, and so on.
It is not, in fact, so surprising that the same country that recently adopted Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, which seeks to ensure that online platforms prioritize Canadian content, has embraced Bill C-18, modeled after a similar measure in Australia: both laws amount to an attack on individual freedom; both are meant to protect large, powerful interests; both are antidemocratic.
Back in March, I reached out to Pattie Mallette, Justin Bieber’s mother, to ask whether her son—who had become famous by posting videos of himself on YouTube—would have been helped or hurt by Ottawa tipping the scales in favor of homegrown creators. She didn’t like the idea of the government interfering in content distribution. “I feel like it’s almost an insult,” she told me.
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, imagines himself David doing battle with Goliath. “Facebook decided that Canada was a small country, small enough that they could reject our asks,” Trudeau said recently. “They made the wrong choice by deciding to attack Canada. We want to defend democracy. This is what we’re doing across the world, such as supporting Ukraine. This is what we did during the Second World War.”
That’s a bad joke meant to camouflage an ugly reality, which is that Bill C-18 will lead to a greater consolidation of power among the big, ancient news organizations (which generally toe the Liberal Party line) and do grave damage to smaller, local news outfits across the country (which often do not).
“We are not asking for a handout from the federal government,” Durham Radio News, just east of Toronto, said in a statement. “[W]e don’t think taxpayers should have to subsidize news, we are just asking the Liberals to take their feet off our necks.”
Christopher Curtis, a co-founder of an independent Montreal-based investigative news site called The Rover, said the new law is literally killing them by making it impossible to reach his audience. “This is how I feed my kid,” Curtis said. “This is how I pay rent. If this continues for much longer, then I think all of that is in jeopardy, and that’s horrifying to me.”
Rupa Subramanya is a reporter for The Free Press based in Ottawa. You can follow her @rupasubramanya.
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