Will student journalism get caught in the crossfire?
On June 22, the Canadian federal government passed Bill C-18, also known as the Online News Act. Originally intended to aid Canadian news outlets in striking fair deals with online platforms, the bill is now a cause of uncertainty for independent and university papers.
As stated on the federal government’s website, Bill C-18 “seeks to support balanced negotiations between the businesses that operate dominant digital news intermediaries and the businesses responsible for the news outlets that produce this news content.” Tech companies that usually share Canadian news content online will soon have to pay the news outlets for the links they share.
Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa and chair of internet and e-commerce law.
In an email to the Martlet, Geist explained that this specific solution to improve the deals between Canadian news outlets and online platforms is “a mistake and when combined with unknown or uncapped liability has led to the internet companies seeking to comply with the law by removing news sharing links.”
Tech companies such as Google and Meta have already started to retaliate. Meta went as far as announcing on their site: “We have repeatedly shared that in order to comply with Bill C-18 … content from news outlets, including news publishers and broadcasters, will no longer be available to people accessing our platforms in Canada.”
Since releasing the statement, the company has followed through. Numerous Canadian news outlets, such as The Tyee and CBC News, are no longer able to post news on Meta’s platforms such as Instagram and Threads.
While some publications will likely survive this fallout, these actions could be devastating for smaller independent and university papers that rely on social media to encourage readership.
“It isn’t like how it used to be in the 90s, where we could just publish something in print and then people would go and grab it, because that was the only way to get news,” explained Andrew Mrozowski, president of the Canadian University Press (CUP) and executive editor for McMaster’s Paper, the Silhouette. “Now we’re competing with other publications in our local areas, we’re competing with larger publications …Posting to Google and to Meta [is] really our only way other than doing word of mouth.”
In an opinion piece for the Toronto Star, Mekhi Quarshie breaks down the impact of sharing articles on sites like Google News Showcase. In the last year, 539 000 of 550 000 of the Varsity’s — the University of Toronto’s paper — website views came from Google. Taking away that source of readership could be marked as extremely detrimental to their viewership, argues Quarshie.
In addition to the potential loss of readership, Mrozowski also said that one of the more frustrating aspects of this situation is that Bill C-18 “wasn’t created with small papers, small news organizations in mind.”
Mrozowksi explained that the language of Bill C-18 makes the situation confusing for university papers.
“Where we feel left in the dark is that [Bill C-18 is] looking at larger organizations, but there isn’t really any kind of identifying factors as to what makes [up] a large organization.”
CUP has decided to tackle this problem by asking the Senate to expand their language, hoping the term “media organization” will be used instead of “large organizations,” so that smaller news outlets’ bargaining can also be protected by the Online News Act.
Due to the unclear language of the bill, and the fact that Meta is already starting to block Canadian news on their platforms, it is still unclear if student journalism will be involved in the blackout.
According to Mrozowski, if Meta and Google do decide to block content further, the outcome could be devastating, not only to student papers, but to the whole Canadian news industry.
“Our readership has become so reliant on finding news by looking at our headlines posted to social media or typing in keywords to Google,” said Mrozowski. “Without the ability for us to have that to reach our readership, it’s going to be way harder for us to be able to have folks know what’s going on in their community.”