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Cultural groups aren’t the only ones lobbying for Internet controls

They may be pushing the Online Streaming Act, but the newspaper lobby is doing the same and worse with the Online News Act

Canadian PoliticsMedia Canadian Business

Photo by Nelly Antoniadou/Flickr

A National Post investigation of lobbying efforts by cultural groups hoping to shape the controversial Online Streaming Act, or Bill C-11, has shown that they succeeded in having user-generated content potentially included in the pending legislation. This is hardly shocking to those who have watched for decades as these groups have jostled at the CanCon trough. It also isn’t surprising that the National Post should expose this, as it criticizes the Trudeau government at every turn and nominally opposes government regulation. Except, of course, when it would line the pockets of its New Jersey hedge fund owners, as with the also-pending Online News Act, otherwise known as Bill C-18.

Documents obtained by Post parliamentary reporter Anja Karadeglija show that the lobby groups Friends of Canadian Broadcasting and Coalition for the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (CDCE) prevailed on the ruling Liberal-NDP coalition to remove an exemption for user-generated content from the Online Streaming Act, which brought a wave of protest from YouTubers.

Bill C-11 aims to regulate online video, including foreign-owned streaming services such as Netflix. It passed third reading at the solstice, but a more skeptical Senate refused to fast track it, so it has gone over to the fall. The first version of the bill exempted social media, but the documents obtained by Karadeglija show that the CDCE pushed to instead have Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission bureaucrats decide what should be regulated. Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, as it is now known, recommended that while social media users should be excluded from regulation, the platforms themselves should be regulated, “allowing for conditions on advertising standards, discoverability and data gathering.”

Bill C-11 is the first in a sequence of legislation designed to bring the Internet under Ottawa’s oversight. Next up in Parliament will be Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which would force Google and Facebook to pay Canadian news media for supposedly “stealing” their content by posting links to their articles online. Then there are Bill C-27, which promises to protect online privacy, and still forming legislation to combat “online harms,” which may do so by prohibiting otherwise lawful speech.

The objectives of most of this legislation are noble, but some of the measures it proposes risk infringing on fundamental freedoms such as free speech. One of these bills, however, is not like the other ones. The Online News Act has been criticized by some as a blatant cash grab by Canadian news media and a cynical shakedown of the tech giants which dominate online advertising. The lobbying effort on behalf of Bill C-18 has been massive and has included a long-running, relentless, and one-sided publicity campaign conducted across the pages of our nation’s press.

The powerful force behind this lobbying has been News Media Canada, the newspaper industry trade group of which National Post publisher Postmedia Network is by far the largest member. Postmedia is the all-devouring media monstrosity formed by New Jersey hedge funds after they bought up enough distressed debt of faltering Canwest Global Communications to take over its newspaper division, the former Southam chain, out of bankruptcy in 2010. They were allowed to do so by the then-Conservative government of Stephen Harper despite our supposed 25 percent limit on foreign ownership of newspapers. A few years later, they took over Sun Media, the country’s second-largest chain, and earlier this year they acquired the Irving chain which dominates New Brunswick.

News Media Canada’s lobbying efforts helped bring a five-year $595 million government bailout for the nation’s press in 2018, but that runs out soon. Its latest campaign aims at persuading Ottawa to force Google and Facebook to share some of their rich profits with its member publishers, as Rupert Murdoch did recently in Australia, where he owns most of the major dailies. Murdoch is now lobbying the US and UK governments to do the same. He doesn’t own newspapers in Canada, but News Media Canada has eagerly adopted his plan.

Postmedia owns most of the major dailies in Canada, including eight of the nine largest west of Winnipeg, along with dozens of community newspapers across the country. These publications have run scores of editorials and op-eds as part of News Media Canada campaigns, first in favour of the bailout and more recently calling for a link tax. So too have the Winnipeg Free Press, of which former News Media Canada head Bob Cox was publisher, and the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily which was recently taken over by private equity players, along with the community newspapers of its Metroland chain in Ontario.

Outspoken law professor Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa, who has closely followed these efforts, calls Bill C-18 “shamefully over-broad, an embarrassment to the news media lobby that demanded it, and unworthy of a government that sees itself as a model for the rest of the world on media freedoms.” He has tweeted that News Media Canada’s lobbying for it is “badly damaging the credibility of Canada’s media.” He counted more than 100 registered lobbyist meetings in Ottawa by News Media Canada over a three-year period and found “skewed coverage of the issue in which the overwhelming majority of news stories backed government intervention.”

The worst part of the newspaper campaign, however, has been corporate censorship, which Geist has experienced first-hand. He says he submitted an opinion article last year to a newspaper he did not name, which was accepted by its opinions editor. “I was told it was ready for publication and then I waited. And waited. And was then told the piece was spiked by upper management given the subject matter and the campaign for legislative support from Canadian Heritage.”

The same thing has happened more than once to Carleton University professor Dwayne Winseck, who studies media ownership in Canada and is thus a go-to source for journalists seeking comment on its ever-increasing concentration levels. He says he was asked by a Toronto Star editor last year to write a column on Australia’s link tax, only to have it spiked on orders from above. He managed to place that one instead in the National Observer. He had a second piece spiked earlier this year after it was accepted at the National Post, which he then posted on his blog. Winseck is generally supportive of Bill C-18, seeing Google and Facebook as too powerful and unscrupulous, but he is apparently not enthusiastic enough about it for Big Media. Never one to mince words, he tweeted that the rot in Canadian media “spreads out from the news publishers to the media industries as a whole who have lined up, hands out, to get what they want.”

Others are in favour of Bill C-18 and even censorship to help make it happen. David Skok, who left the Toronto Star in 2018 to found tech website The Logic, opposed the legislation at first, but he has since come to support it. Not only is he now an enthusiastic proponent of Bill C-18, he also sees nothing wrong with newspapers spiking contrary or even balanced opinion to get their way, writing recently that “the rejection of an op-ed is entirely within a publisher’s traditional remit, and it’s a leap to suggest it’s a suppression of free speech.” Skok took pains to disclose that The Logic was unaffiliated with any industry lobby group, but he failed to mention its 2019 partnership with Postmedia. It wasn’t Skok’s first moral conversion since going corporate. He originally opposed the media bailout as “an insult” to readers, but he ended up taking the money anyway.

I look forward to the National Post exposing the lobbying efforts behind Bill C-18 as it has with Bill C-11, but I’m not holding my breath.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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