Bill C-18, Canada's Foreign Link Tax: A Threat to the Free Market AND Free Information

admin Monday December 18, 2023

For more than a year now, Canada's Online News Act, known as Bill C-18, has been... in the news. Unfortunately, not for the right reasons. On paper, the act requires approval of online news publishers for digital news intermediaries to facilite access to the former's content. It's based on the non-mistaken assumption that if a corporate website links to another website, the link must bring value to the corporate website. So why not put a tax on foreign corporations who link to Canadian sites? With many mass media struggling, forcing foreign corporations who link to Canadian media content to pay these media would seem like a profitable move, if it can be pitched properly. Which is what the LPC tried to do, by specifically targeting Wealthy and Evil foreign corporations ("Big Tech"). In practice, C-18 is trying to subsidize Canadian media by forcing Meta and Google to finance them, so that it isn't technically a tax.

The Canadian media I follow the most―CBC/Radio-Canada and L'actualité―keep mentioning Meta and Google's reactions negatively. Which would be understandable given how interested they are, if it wasn't for the fact that in addition to running propagandist ads, they also cover the story with an unrestrained bias. Even the public broadcaster fails to at least disclose its conflict of interest, particularly intense given how underfunded it already is.

So I was pleasantly surprised to get a small break from this enduring and frustrating rhetoric when I saw the CBC's The National explain what it really was about in At Issue's latest edition, all thanks to Andrew Coyne, its economy-educated panelist. I was curious to hear more than this short intervention (at 02:55) on the topic from Coyne, so I went looking for articles online and found his excellent The best thing the government could do to save the media is to stop trying to save the media, which beautifully highlights the mass media's contradictions. Coyne says it well:

Two things may be said with some confidence. One, the future of the news industry, like most industries, probably belongs to publications that don’t exist yet, applying business models that haven’t yet been devised (or whose superiority has not yet been acknowledged). And two, the ones that succeed will be the ones that are the most adept at connecting with readers: that are best able to figure out what readers want, and how to deliver it to them. Because whatever else might have changed, and will in future, there will always be people – a minority, to be sure, but still a decent number – who want to be informed, and are willing to pay for it. The challenge is persuading them they are getting their money’s worth.

And yet, The Globe and Mail was expecting me to subscribe for more than 400 CAD/year to read Coyne's article. I've never read The Globe and Mail regularly, but I doubt it would provide that much value to a Quebecer like me, who has access to multiple other (less costly) quality news sources, and little time to follow them all.

I checked if there was a more reasonable way to read Coyne's view and quickly ended up on a website which has been shamelessly copying The Globe and Mail for years. The highrony of watching the same government tolerate crooks blatantly stealing our IP for years, while focusing its efforts on a counterproductive attempt to steal lost revenue back from innovators―merely guilty of being foreign―, is one sorry exemplification of how populist―if not downright ignorant―Canada has become.

Unwilling to let most of my readers choose between financial health and theft, I searched for a more accessible neutral article on the topic and was impressed by Michael Geist's remarkable The Bill C-18 Reality: Everyone Loses When the Government Mandates Payments for Links. This truly free article dismantles the media's rhetoric, as in this brilliant example:

As some have noted, the government says the companies are stealing content if they link and blocking content if they don’t.

But I can't conclude without pointing out just how contradictory C-18 proponents remain. As Coyne noted:

[Digital news intermediaries] perform a service for us, in other words, the proof of which is the profusion of “Share this” and “Link to this” buttons we plaster all over our stories. We want readers to post our stories to Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

But even as the law is about to enter into force, months after Meta restricted linking to CBC News content, the CBC is still advertising Meta: CBC Bill C 18 Passed Even 5 months into a Meta boycott by the government (including CBC/Radio-Canada), the CBC is still advertising Facebook for free, as this surreal press release shows: CBC Meta Boycott Coyne had warned of unintended consequences, as taxing access to credible information effectively favours disinformation. But looking at the lies deliberately spread in the above CBC pages, this concern may have been unjustified… The foreign link tax will just replace local sources of disinformation by more numerous and foreign sources of disinformation.😒

And yet here we are despairing about the public's waning trust in journalism and complaining about disinformation, while spending on fancy projects to restore trust, rather than starting with the basics. If CBC News can't avoid conflict of interest, can it not at least avoid sensationalism and obvious bias in its stories?