Paying for News

I’m writing to oppose the recent call by Canadian newspapers to require by law that companies like Google and Facebook pay for news items they link to in their search or news feeds.

We are told “They are using their monopoly power to scoop up 80% of online advertising revenues and to free ride on the news content produced by hardworking journalists and publishers across Canada.”

The campaign is being depicted as a “David vs Goliath” battle between small scrappy local newspapers and global giants. But readers should not be misled. The news media in Canada is heavily centralized and owned by some of Canada’s wealthiest citizens and corporations. They don’t answer to their readers and they certainly don’t represent the interests of their readers.

We need only look at the example of the Irving-owned press in Atlantic Canada where competition not only in news but in many of Irving’s other interests – forestry, oil, trucking – is stifled at first mention. Or the example of the yellow front-page attack ad run across the PostMedia chain on the eve of a Federal election.

What we are seeing in the current campaign is just another example of that media domination. Canada’s corporate media are using their overwhelming voice to attempt to influence opinion and public policy for their own benefit. They are noticeably silent about the fact that these same companies charge Canadians some of the highest internet and mobile data fees in the world.

It’s true that the news industry in Canada is suffering, but it’s not because of the search engines. It’s because of a failed business model that depends on tolls on data, paywalls, tracking and spyware, and content that privileged the perspective of corporations and the wealthy. That’s still true of the news industry in Canada and it’s hard to see why we should pay to support this.

What the news media did not do that both Facebook and Google did was to give people a voice. They welcomed public contributions, linked people to each other, connected communities and families, and served the function that Canadian newspapers largely eschewed in favour of centralization and profit-taking.

Giving Canada’s corporate media legislated funding from Google and Facebook will further reinforce these trends. It would give established media outlets a financial subsidy that will disadvantage community newspapers, local social media, decentralized media, and even local bloggers, podcasters and video producers.

The news media in Canada are using the example of recent legislation being proposed in Australia to support their case. It should also be noted that the Australian government is also using the campaign as a means to defund the ABC, their equivalent of the CBC. Even though the CBC is the best and often the only source of local news stories in Canada, defunding the CBC is high on the list of priorities for Canada’s corporate media.

If Canada really wanted to support local news it would collect revenues from large corporate content producers (including Google and Facebook, but also Canada’s corporate media) and use them to fund individual and independent producers of Canadian news coverage, thus allowing local media to flourish it its original close-to-home grassroots environment.

Creating instead a special tax imposed on digital media payable directly to large Canadian corporations sets a terrible precedent and ought to be resisted at all levels.

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