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Imagine news outlets getting paid by tech companies for the journalism that fuels their feeds. That’s an idea Canada is hoping to make a reality by the end of 2023, with a new piece of legislation that demands large tech companies pay for Canadian news.
The law has drawn the ire of Big Tech’s largest players, who announced in June they will block Canadian news from showing up on Facebook, Instagram, and Google. But it could set a precedent for how other countries might legally secure the future of journalism—by having enormously wealthy tech companies share profit where newsmakers say it’s due.
Behind the controversy is a new Canadian law called Bill C-18, or the Online News Act. Passed by federal lawmakers back in June, the Online News Act stipulates that tech companies must pay journalism outlets if they want to use their content. The government says the bill aims to make the Canadian digital-news marketplace more fair and sustainable. But tech companies—Meta and Google being the loudest voices in the room—aren’t happy with the bill, with Google calling it “unworkable.”
In fact, both companies have decided that the only way forward is to stop making Canadian news available on their sites entirely—a move critics of the companies’ response say could have disastrous local consequences.
“When Google and Facebook decide that they do not want to have news articles on their websites, that means that people, for the most part, don’t know where to go to find out information,” says Jon Schleuss, president of NewsGuild-CWA, which supports journalists working in the United States and Canada.
The argument comes as journalism outlets around the world struggle to make ends meet financially, due in part to the fact that Meta and Google dominate the market that funded news media for centuries: advertising. In the last five years alone, Canadian publications have cut more than 10,000 journalism-related jobs, most of them in print. The United States has lost three times that many in the last 10 years, says Schleuss.
“These platforms benefit from, you know, the tens of thousands of articles generated on a daily basis,” he says. “And they are paying nothing to get that content.”
Canada has come up with a number quantifying just how much it thinks Google and Facebook should pay publishers to license their content—$172 million for Google, and $62 million for Facebook.
Meta and Google Have “Gobbled Up” the Ad Money News Relies On, Say Newsmakers
Canada’s news woes are a symptom of a global problem—how can journalism outlets around the world make money when tech companies make digital advertising so cheap? For more than 300 years, newspapers and stations relied on companies buying advertisements to fund their newsrooms. With the advent of the internet, news readership went up. But it also made ads much cheaper to buy, cutting revenue for newsmakers.
Google has said it didn’t cause the disruption of the news business model—the internet did. But the company is responsible for what happens next, says Schleuss. Google, for example, handles more than 90% of worldwide internet searches.
“You now have a duopoly effect, where the two largest internet companies control all of the digital advertisements,” says Schleuss of Meta and Alphabet, Google’s parent company. “They have basically created the only place where you can go and buy advertisements that can get any eyeballs online, and then they turn around and want to use and benefit from the content that’s created by the publishers.”
But if Google and Meta shared some of their revenues with news outlets, and those news outlets used the money to fund journalism jobs, it could sustain the very industry that benefits Big Tech while also doing a service for democracy.
Could the United States Follow Suit?
Two years ago, a similar story played out in Australia when its government attempted to pass a bill similar to the Online News Act. The bill was intended to force Meta and Google to the bargaining table with news publishers to discuss compensation if they couldn’t reach a deal.
The bill scared big tech companies. Facebook said if the law went ahead, they would block Australian users from sharing news content. Google threatened to leave Australia entirely, even though the year prior, Australia’s wildfires were the platform’s most searched event of the past decade—higher search numbers even than those of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Publishers around the world often feel at the mercy of Big Tech, which they say is actively deprioritizing news—earlier this year, a change in Meta’s algorithm caused a huge drop in traffic to news and media pages.
Ultimately, the government and the tech companies reached an agreement, whereby the participating companies have more than 30 deals with media outlets to pay those outlets when the content they provide gets clicks and produces ad revenue, says Australia’s Treasury Department. While transparency remains a challenge, an Australian Treasury review hailed the code as a “success.” The agreement has set a global precedent, opening the doors for other countries to strike their own agreements with tech giants—the U.S. included.
The U.S. Congress is working on its own adaptation of Australia’s bargaining code—the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. The act would require that tech companies compensate certain journalism outlets for licensing their content, in a way similar to the Australian model. But some say that model is flawed, in that it leaves out bargaining opportunities for smaller outlets and favors a group of publications largely managed by hedge funds. These hedge funds, like Alden Global Capital, effectively buy and clean out newspapers to make quick profits. The Financial Times has calculated that about half of U.S. daily newspapers are owned by such hedge funds.
“The money [from tech companies] actually needs to be directed to supporting jobs [in journalism] and providing transparency,” says Schleuss. “Frankly, we’re not going to support a piece of legislation unless it has those requirements.”
California has developed its own Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, passed in the state Assembly earlier this summer. If California’s Senate passes the bill, it would mandate that companies like Google and Meta share advertising revenue that comes from reported content. It would go a step further in requiring that at least 70% of that shared revenue fund journalism jobs—a critical aspect.
Both bills have yet to reach senate approval.
Canadians Boycott Meta As It Begins Blacking Out News
In Canada, there has been a mixed public response to the Online News Act. Some say it’s a bad bill that misses the mark—others see it as the only way Canadian journalism outlets can stay afloat. The federal government has said the law will apply to companies that make more than $1.3 billion per year and have more than 20 million monthly Canadian users. Right now, that’s just Meta’s Facebook and Google. Since Meta announced its plan to pull Canadian news from its platforms, several bodies across Canada are boycotting the company by suspending their advertising with Meta. The federal government, and several of the province of Quebec’s largest cities, are among them.
So are institutions like the McCord Museum, a Canadian social-history museum in downtown Montreal that has long prioritized investing in local and national media. “Producing reliable, rigorous and non-partisan journalistic information requires considerable expertise and resources, both human and material,” announced the museum’s Canadian president, Anne Eschapasse, in a press release. “Press organizations must be remunerated for the research, analysis, production and dissemination of the information that is distributed on digital platforms.”
Some entities have encouraged Canadians across the country to stop using Meta sites all together. During a two-day boycott of Meta platforms, Friends—formerly Friends of Canadian Broadcasting—saw thousands of Canadians #GoDark on Facebook and Instagram, says Friends director Sarah Andrews. The number included individuals, communications organizations, and the entire caucus of a political party, the Bloc Québécois.
Friends supports Bill C-18. They say that bills of this kind correct the market imbalance that Meta and Google have created in the online advertising world, giving media creators a fair chance at earning advertising revenue.
“That’s why organizations like our own have been giving Canadians a way of expressing their frustration about the news block, to encourage Meta to come back to the table,” says Andrews.
Meta’s pilot test for limiting news availability comes as Canada is battling its worst wildfire season on record. When a raging wildfire forced a Canadian capital city to evacuate 20,000 residents last month, the void of Canadian news on Meta made it difficult for residents to access reliable evacuation information. Google is still in conversation with the Canadian government over the act and has yet to officially test blocking news in Canada in the same way Meta has.
But the fight isn’t over yet, says Andrews. The government is still in talks with Google over Bill C-18. If Meta moves forward with its plan to pull Canadian news from its platforms, groups like Friends will continue mobilizing Canadian people, governments, and institutions to fight for their democracy.
And with more and more countries considering implementing their own news bargaining codes, tech companies will have no choice but to comply with the demands voiced by their user base—a chorus that values the contributions of news and media makers.
Jade Prévost-Manuel is a Canadian multimedia journalist, writer and copy editor currently based out of Trinidad and Tobago. A former CBC News associate producer, she worked in investigative journalism and daily news at both the local and national levels. In 2021, she broke a story about the discovery of a new species of ocean sunfish in Canadian waters and interviewed Olympic champion Maggie MacNeil on the heels of her Tokyo 2020 win. Her stories have appeared in publications like enRoute, Canadian Geographic, ON Nature, Outpost, and CBC Sports. She’s a former recipient of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Joan Donaldson News Scholarship and a registered member of Editors Canada. She is also a proud alumnus of both McGill University and Western University. When she’s not telling stories on land, you can find her exploring life below the ocean’s surface.