What a tangled web we weave.
That’s likely been a thought that’s reverberated many times through the halls of power in Ottawa this summer. In June, the federal government passed the Online News Act that would compel tech companies to negotiate with news organizations for financial remuneration for news content shared on their platforms.
Meta and Google have not taken kindly to having their exorbitant profits be put in the crosshairs by the Trudeau government. Since the bill’s passing, this so-called “digital duopoly” has responded by ratcheting up their corporate communications threat-o-meters to DEFCON 1 levels, saying that they will soon prevent Canadians from accessing news content on their platforms.
There’s a chilling and dystopian irony to this whole standoff. For years, the corporate communicators at these major tech companies have spouted lofty rhetoric about the critical role their platforms play in promoting democracy and supporting journalism by building an informed and engaged public.
And yet, seemingly overnight, these tech companies have decided to quickly pivot and set fire to this long-held corporate talking point when confronted by the threat of having to engage in a fair negotiation with news organizations and a smidge of democratic oversight.
Would tech players actually follow through on their threats to limit an entire nation’s access to information simply to get their way? To appropriate the thoughts of Prime Minister Trudeau the First, the answer appears to be: “Just watch us.”
Publishers, for their part, are not taking this lightly, either. Nor should they. A coalition of news organizations formally called on Canada’s Competition Bureau to investigate Meta’s allegedly “anti-competitive conduct” by blocking access to news on its platforms and for its unwillingness to negotiate.
While this process likely won’t help break any impasse in this stare-down, the filing emphasizes two important realities.
First, the status quo has become untenable and the rules of the game need to change if Canadians want to have long-term access to accurate and quality information to help them make important decisions about how they live their lives.
While this high-stakes chess match between the feds, #Meta and #Google continues to unfold over the coming weeks, writes @Brent_T_Jolly, a parallel societal discussion will likely help to determine the success or failure of #BillC18 #cdnpoli
Second, Canadians are going to have to act, sooner or later, to break their dependency on social media and begin the painstaking process of redrawing the fractured boundaries of our public sphere.
After a decade and a half of hemorrhaging cash, many news organizations in Canada today are operating on the precipice of collapse. During that time, hundreds of news outlets have shuttered and thousands of journalists have been furloughed.
While it has become a fact that many large news organizations around the world have been slow to adapt to a burgeoning digital world, it also underscores the complicated and uneven relationship that has existed between tech platforms and journalism for quite some time, too.
Let’s follow the money.
Once upon a time, money from advertising was used by news organizations to bankroll their editorial operations. Whether it was your local member of Parliament advertising their latest community barbecue or the flower shop down the street letting you know that your favourite white roses are on sale this week, spreading the word has become synonymous with posting, sharing and engaging with content on tech platforms like Facebook or Instagram.
In Canada, it is now estimated that anywhere between 70 to 80 per cent of advertising dollars have been hoovered up by tech companies. News organizations, which previously invested those dollars to cover the costs of reporter salaries and costly public-interest investigations, have been left to pick up the scraps.
Right now you might be thinking: “Sure, that’s all true, but it’s not 1996 anymore, either. The world has changed.” And to that observation, you certainly have a point.
Since those early days of the internet, tech companies emerged as advertising and content-curating behemoths on the premise that they could provide advertisers or news organizations with an exponentially larger audience for materials published on their platforms.
The benefit for news organizations in this equation was based on the theory that social platforms would help direct more traffic to publisher’s websites, which would help offset the loss of revenue from more traditional sources of advertising.
To the untrained eye or ear, it’s a sales pitch not without merit. To that end, it shouldn’t come as a giant surprise that it’s an argument tech platforms, and critics of the Online News Act, have repeatedly cited as a backstop to democratic oversight.
The problems with this argument only grow by the day. As those in the journalism industry have learned all too well, time has proven that the pitch from tech platforms has turned Canada’s information marketplace into a tangled mess, largely because it was premised on the fraught and much-maligned notion of trickle-down economics.
Perhaps more important, however, is understanding this standoff is based on more than correcting for past mistakes by getting Google and Meta to pay news organizations for links and posts. Without question, it’s an important factor in shaping the future of Canada’s journalistic and information ecosystem — but it’s also just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Around the world, these foreign and unaccountable social media companies have been discreetly scooping up humanity’s collective knowledge; every news story, video, social media post, song, drawing or research paper in the public domain to train their artificial intelligence (AI) models in return for a yet-untold financial benefit.
Now, this isn’t to say the Online News Act is a perfectly crafted piece of legislation. As many observers have noted, there are still important details to be worked out to ensure this legislation is implemented fairly, equitably and transparently.
But what Big Tech’s Canadian case study shows the world pretty clearly right now is that they are proving unwilling to comply with the laws of our land and, even worse, limit the nation’s access to information rather than put future revenue opportunities under threat.
At this point, Canadians would benefit from reflecting on two questions. First, why should tech platforms be exempt from paying for content that feeds their algorithms and helps their bottom line? It’s no state secret that radio stations pay to play songs. Broadcast news organizations buy video to use in newscasts and newspapers pay writers for their words and photographers for their photos.
Second, why do we allow these platforms to play such an outsized role in our social lives? You don’t have to look very far to read some of the voluminous ink that has been spilled decrying the changes implemented by Elon Musk to X, the platform formally known as Twitter. And that’s not to mention the examples of unchecked extremism, veiled or overt threats, mindless epithets, and other ad-hominem attacks that belie the toxicity that metastasizes on these platforms.
While tech platforms have become ubiquitous parts of our daily lives, their convenience and dopamine-induced stupor must be balanced against the negative impact they’ve had in controlling the ebbs and flows of information that have slowly eroded the connective tissues that bind many of our communities together.
In the early 1960s, famed American essayist Arthur Miller stated, “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” While the world has certainly changed leaps and bounds since then, his overarching message, that quality journalism is a key ingredient to help make democracy work, still holds true.
While this high-stakes game of chess continues to unfold over the coming weeks, a parallel societal discussion will likely help to determine the success or failure of this legislative and regulatory exercise. We all must better scrutinize the power platforms play in our society and how they shape our decisions. We must also determine how they should be held accountable for their actions when utopian promises go awry.
Without a doubt, it’s a complicated clash of ideas that, if heeded, will likely mean changing many of our daily habits, behaviours and routines. At the same time, given the fractures clearly displayed in our social discourse, it’s an exercise that should have sparked our imaginations, and those of our legislators, long before now.
Brent Jolly is the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.