LILLEY: Feds and tech giants battle over news, most want a settlement

Feds pull ads from Facebook over blocking of Canadian news, Quebec joins in but Ontario stays silent.

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The Trudeau government’s attempts to save the media industry don’t seem to be going as planned.

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They’ve botched the roll-out of Bill C-18, the Online News Act, and have now said they will immediately suspend all federal advertising on META — the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — over threats to block Canadian news from being shared on those platforms.

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The bill was supposed to be the Trudeau government’s attempt to save the news industry by “forcing big tech,” namely Facebook and Google, to pay for content created by news publishers.

While the government’s heart may have been in the right place, their execution has been awful. In response to the act passing, Meta and Google threatened to pull access to news for Canadians.

Both companies have yet to act on those threats, but commercial arrangements between the companies and various news publishers which were already in place are threatened with cancellation.

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Now, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has said he is cancelling the federal government’s advertising with Meta, which according to the latest annual report from the feds, sat at $11.4 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year. That compares to $32 million spent on television, $11.6 million spent on radio and $6.5 million spent with newspapers.

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The spending on television, radio and print are only as high as they are due to an increase in spending during COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, the Trudeau government spent more on search engine ads – meaning Google – than it did on radio and newspapers combined. Facebook would have overtaken TV ads by now if it weren’t for the nasty virus.

The Trudeau government says they want to save traditional print media but vote with their wallets, or make that our wallets, as they put their money everywhere but where journalism actually breaks stories, with traditional news media, meaning newspapers – even in their digital forms.

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The federal government has received support from Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who cancelled provincial ad spending shortly after the feds, as did the City of Montreal. Silent thus far is Ontario’s Doug Ford, whose government hasn’t said anything on this matter.

The latest report on reviewable advertising by Ontario shows that they spent $58 million on advertising in 2021-22 with the biggest chunk, $15.5 million, going to digital – mostly Facebook and Google – with radio coming at $13.4 million and print at $8.8 million.

Somewhere between Rodriguez acting like a bull in a China shop and the Ford government sitting passively silent in a battle over the future of Canadian media is a middle ground. Polling shows, that’s what Canadians want, the middle ground, where both sides negotiate a settlement and stop the fighting that could see Canadian news blocked on what have become vital online platforms for most.

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When asked about Bill C-18, a poll taken this last week by Maru Public Opinion found 58% support the government’s position, with 22% saying they very much back the government view and 36% somewhat back it. That compares to 42% who oppose the government policy, 20% very much and 22% somewhat.

Upon hearing that Canadian news may be cut off from Facebook, Instagram and Google, support flips to 55% opposing the government position and 45% supporting.

The real news in the poll, though, is that 51% want both sides to call a truce and negotiate a settlement.  That’s something Google clearly wants given their public statements, but something Facebook will resist until the end based upon theirs. There are significant portions of the population which hate big tech and media, but the majority want to find a solution, not punish the side they dislike.

The news media and tech giants are in effect reliant upon each other at this point; they need to find a solution. To do that will require each side to compromise, something neither Facebook nor Rodriguez seems willing to do.

The government has valid public policy goals at the heart of this push, even if their attempts to reach those goals are ham fisted. Facebook and Google have valid concerns with the parameters of the legislation, including unlimited financial liability.

It’s time for both sides to stop playing chicken and come to the table.

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