Could small Canadian publishers be denied big tech money?

OTTAWA — Three weeks ago, small and medium-sized media outlets across Australia made an unusual decision: for 24 hours, they agreed not to publish any news online.

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

But while major publishers and networks in Australia had struck deals with Facebook and Google, some smaller, independent outlets were finding themselves shut out from making deals of their own.

To draw attention to the issue, around 30 outlets stopped posting news and instead published the same red graphic on their websites and newsletters. It bore the hashtag #WaitingOnZuck — a call to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come to the table and secure agreements with the so-called “little guys.”

The decision felt “unnatural,” said Angela Priestley, co-founder of Women’s Agenda, an independent daily news publication. Australia was on the cusp of a federal election call, after all.

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

What’s been unfolding in Australia has led some smaller publishers in Canada to wonder if a similar fate might befall them here.

Bill C-18, known as the Online News Act, is a piece of legislation that would compel big platforms like Facebook and Google to make deals with Canadian outlets. The idea is to level the playing field between the news industry and the tech titans that dominate the digital advertising market. Many in the industry have lobbied for the federal government to table legislation that would address the imbalance in online advertising revenue, including Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star.

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

A failure to support smaller outlets, Millar said, would lead to a loss of diverse voices in journalism, many of whom serve communities at risk of becoming news deserts.

To start with, Canada’s proposed legislation sidesteps at least one pitfall of Australia’s law.

In both countries, if digital giants and media organizations fail to reach agreements on their own, they can enter into negotiation and final-offer arbitration processes that ultimately result in a deal.

The problem in Australia is that platforms need to be “designated” by the country’s treasurer to be forced to come to an agreement, something the country has yet to apply to any tech platform because web giants have struck deals with big networks and publishers.

“They’ve done enough deals that the government has said, ‘OK, you’ve done enough … We’re not going to designate you at the moment.’ And what that’s meant is that smaller publishers, and maybe middle-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 while they’ve struck deals with Google, their talks with Facebook fizzled out with no explanation.

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

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

Before Bill C-18 was introduced, Google had already locked down deals with 11 publishers, including Torstar, while Facebook parent company Meta had inked agreements with Torstar and 17 other outlets. It will be up to platforms and publishers to re-examine those deals if the bill passes.

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

Under the proposed legislation, the CRTC must get an independent auditor to prepare an annual report about the impact of the bill. That includes details on the total value of agreements, but it so far doesn’t include making public which newsrooms are receiving what amounts.

That’s critical information, Millar said, given that small and mid-sized publishers haven’t had the resources to have their concerns heard as much as larger organizations.

“There’s absolutely no transparency around … how much these payments are,” she said. “I’ve raised this many times with Google. We don’t even know how to participate in the conversation, because we don’t have the basic facts.”

RP

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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