In a recent episode of the podcast Pivot, Kara Swisher and Jason Del Rey talked about Canada, The Online News Act (Bill C-18), and Meta’s threats to block news to Canadians.

“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume Facebook will continue the pattern of being liars and full of shit,” Del Rey says. “They will strike a deal and this is absolutely what all of these western nations need to do.

“If you think about (the) pursuit of truth and (the) pillars of democracy — free speech, free elections — one of the vehicles for getting closer to the truth is a free and robust media. These (social media) companies have effectively not only attacked the veracity of the media with disinformation and misinformation, but gutted the classified section that paid for fact-checked journalism. The idea that governments weigh in and say, ‘We’ve gotta redistribute money from your extraordinary gains back to the media … you’ve created a tragedy of commons.”

Swisher responds: “They’re gonna face this all over the world. They’ll have to pay.”

Here in Canada, things don’t look so certain. There are dire warnings about what the standoff between Meta and the federal government will all mean for Canadian media companies and Canadians. I’m alarmed, too.

Long before our federal government thought to hit up social media giants to pay for news they were grabbing for free, top media analysts sounded the alarm.

The alarm was raised by the Public Policy Forum in The Shattered Mirror report in 2017 and it is valuable reading for those who wish to understand the context for the standoff between Meta and the Canadian government over Bill C-18. It shed light on the challenges facing news outlets, democracy and trust in the digital age.

It served as a call to action to the government to help save news organizations that were serving Canadians. It highlighted the loss of newsroom jobs and the shrinking or closure of local newsrooms in Canada. It put forth suggestions for a fund to aid journalism. It laid the groundwork for legislation that created the Local Journalism Initiative, which, though flawed, has created hundreds of new positions for reporters in outlets in every Canadian city and town. It made recommendations to the government, including:

  • Enhance the Income Tax Act
    • Level the playing field among platforms
    • Incentivize Canada-centric organizations
    • Create a pool of funds for reinvestment in journalism and digital news innovation
  • Remove obstacles to philanthropic financing by amending Canada’s charity laws

“News is as vital for democracy as clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health,” the report stated, going on to say that within a fortnight of January 2016 alone, Rogers Media and Postmedia announced rounds of staff reductions. Torstar announced plans to shut down a printing press and Confederation-era newspapers in Guelph and Nanaimo were shuttered — the first of six to close, merge or reduce their publishing schedules before year’s end. As you know, the cuts to newsrooms continue. Only yesterday, Postmedia announced a possible merger with Torstar, an evolution that seems both inevitable and horrifying.

The 2017 report was the result of an extensive consultation process led by a former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief Ed Greenspon, who talked to legacy and independent news organizations across Canada over a two-year period.

As I participated in these consultations, the gravity of the situation hit home. In these meetings, we talked about what policies could assist news organizations. It always came down to money and resources. I travelled to Ottawa on three different occasions to meet with other news executives on this topic.

Emily Bell, the founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, spoke at one of these meetings about threats from Facebook and Google, as well as her recently released report, The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley reengineered journalism, co-authored with Taylor Owen and published in March 2017.

While I don't have my notes from that day, I remember Bell referring to the report and conveying the following points:

1. The influence of social media platforms and technology companies on American news surpasses even the impact of the shift from print to digital.

2. Companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have rapidly assumed traditional publishers' roles, raising concerns about the future financial support for producing the news.

3. These platforms have evolved beyond being mere distribution channels; they now control the content seen by audiences, determine who gets paid for attention, and even influence the format and type of news that flourishes.

In that room in Ottawa, Bell and Owen's report eloquently articulated what we already knew was happening. It made it clear that the situation unfolding before us was inconceivable, yet undeniably real.

Inconceivable. The word finds resonance in Shoshana Zuboff's seminal work, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, published in 2019. Zuboff's book discusses the rise of digital companies such as Google and Facebook. It describes their business models as a new form of capitalist accumulation called "surveillance capitalism." Zuboff notes that our human behaviour is now the most valuable resource on the earth, that the data companies extract from billions of human users and that these companiesm have evaded regulation because their practices are beyond the scope of most people's ability to imagine what their impact on society. Zuboff warns that by the time we comprehend the true extent of Big Tech's demolishment of democratic institutions, public safety, and individual privacy, it may be way too late to regain control.

As the only female CEO at that table in 2017, and representing a digital-only publication, I keenly felt the need for change on many levels. All the media executives were white and hardly representative of Canada’s population. I had only been a Canadian citizen for five years and considered it an honour to participate at such a significant level. But I was shocked by the lack of diversity at the table.

During these meetings, we deliberated on how the government could tax the social media platforms to establish a substantial fund supporting the creation of public interest news in Canada. Suggestions ranged from placing the fund under the purview of Heritage Canada to enacting legislation that would provide subsidies based on the number of employees a media organization had.

In the years that have followed, the landscape of news, democracy and trust in the digital age has continued to evolve at an astonishing pace. The predictions and warnings from The Shattered Mirror report and the groundbreaking work of Ed Greenspon, Emily Bell, Taylor Owen and Shoshana Zuboff have proven visionary.

Their warnings are at the forefront of my mind today as I contemplate Meta and Google's promise to block news from Canadians on its platforms. Social media platforms have radically changed societies and democratic processes worldwide in ways that I could once never have imagined, even during those consultations in Ottawa. Who sees what news stories remain largely in their control. Let’s keep the news in front of Canadians. Together we can work to take back control in every way we can.

Want to know more about the Online News Act and its importance to Canada's democracy? Read my second in this series: "It’s been said Canada is the toughest news environment on Earth."

Keep reading

Just to be clear, it's not the "tragedy of the commons". It's the tragedy of the "free market".

The internet is nothing like a commons (and for that matter, neither was whatever Garrett Hardin wrote about). Commonses were historically governed by their communities, they were not the free-for-alls Hardin used in his spurious pro-market argument. Ironically, the kind of relentless using up of stuff just treated as freebies and the costs of doing so set aside as "externalities" and ignored, is much more characteristic of market capitalist economies than of commonses.

That's a really good point. It's a tragedy of the free market that is having a terrible impact on the commons.