Canada’s Online News Act: A Blueprint for Regulating Big Tech?

Photo Credit: Koshiro K/Alamy Stock Photo

By: Blake Hawthorne, 2L

Enacted in June 2023, Bill C-18, popularly known as Canada’s Online News Act, represents a significant move to tackle the financial challenges the news industry faces in the digital era. The Act requires large digital platforms to provide “fair compensation” for displaying Canadian news content. While some have praised the Act as essential for ensuring the long-term viability of journalism, it has also raised various concerns. 

The power of traditional news media has declined in recent years due to the rise of digital platforms. Canada’s Bill C-18 is a significant response to this shift in power. The bill aims to address the concerns of Canadian news outlets who feel like they are not being compensated fairly for their content, which is often used by digital platforms to generate revenue. Bill C-18 requires digital news intermediaries to negotiate agreements, through a bargaining process, with Canadian news businesses for the use of their content. If the parties cannot agree, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) may impose a binding arbitration process to determine fair compensation. 

While the liberal government’s bill has been praised by some as a necessary step to protect the Canadian news industry, it has also been heavily criticized. Bill C-18, through its collective bargaining mechanism’s mandating of agreements between publishers and intermediaries, may exceed copyright law and lead to anti-competitive practices. U.S. tech giants, Google and Meta have been at the forefront of discussions due to their significant influence in the digital news ecosystem. Both have denounced the Act as a violation of free-market principles and a threat to open-source technologies. Even though 45% of Canadians get their news from social media, both companies have stated their opposition to the Act and have taken actions such as blocking access to Canadian news content on their platforms to avoid compliance. 

In October 2022, Meta first addressed their concerns with the Online News Act, alleging that the “legislation is based on the incorrect premise that Meta benefits unfairly from new content on [its] platforms when the reverse is true.” With no changes made by the Trudeau administration before Bill C-18 took effect, Meta confirmed that “news availability will be ended on Facebook and Instagram for all users in Canada . . . .” Accordingly, news posted by news publishers in Canada is no longer viewable in Canada. Similarly, news links posted by publishers outside of Canada will not be viewable by people in Canada, and people in Canada will no longer be able to view or share news content on Facebook and Instagram. 

Google has directly challenged the Act’s legality, arguing that it violates established copyright limitations and exemptions and imposes unfair and discriminatory obligations. As recently as November 29, 2023, Google, while agreeing to work through the exemption process with the Government of Canada, says there are still major structural issues with the legislation that remain unresolved.

The implications extend beyond Canada, as other countries observe this crucial test case for regulating digital platforms and their impact on free speech.

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