Home Breaking Media funding | When the cure is worse than the disease

Media funding | When the cure is worse than the disease

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We recently learned that Google is testing a minority of its users. Google has temporarily removed all media content from its search results1.

This test is a response to Bill C-18, the Online News Act. It goes without saying that cutting off access to media content is never a good idea. We can only deplore this decision by Google. However, before blaming the tech giant, one has to ask how we got here.

Advertisers have migrated their budget to the web giants, which offer advertising solutions better suited to their needs. In response, the traditional media, particularly through the grouping of News Media Canada, pressured the government to intervene.

The media argument is this: the web giants are using our content (and making a profit from it). We should therefore be compensated for this use. Thus, the law forces the web giants to negotiate remuneration agreements with the media.

Moreover, if the media do not want their articles to be found in Google results, they can easily do so by modifying a line of code on their website.

If the web giants really used media content, they could use copyright laws to seek financial compensation. However, as Michael Geist⁠2, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Internet and Electronic Commerce Law, both international and Canadian law are clear on this issue. A link to a news article is fair use and does not require permission or financial compensation.

Rather than talking about use, Bill C-18 uses the term “make available”. The bill even mentions that it suspends the scope of the Copyright Act with respect to negotiations between platforms and media.

Thus, a simple link to a press article is covered by this law. This is called a link tax and it is a very bad idea⁠3.

First, by basing the financial contribution on links (and, by extension, clicks), we are not encouraging quality journalism, but click-bait. Then, if the agreement negotiated between the platforms and the media finds its justification on the links, the platforms have no interest in giving visibility to the media. We therefore find ourselves on the one hand with media that have a financial interest in generating bad content and, on the other, with platforms that have an interest in limiting the sharing of media content4. ⁠

Second, if you consider links to have value, then why not compensate the whole internet? If Google and Facebook benefit from linking to media content, should they also benefit from content that is not covered by C-18?

Finally, a direct agreement between the platforms and the media relieves the media of responsibility. C-18 provides for a direct agreement negotiated (or forced by an arbitrator) between the media and digital platforms. Other players offer other types of financing. For example, some are proposing to tax web giants directly and then redistribute the money in media subsidies. Google itself offers to contribute to a public fund which would be intended for the media.

The media, again through News Media Canada, reject this type of funding. According to them, if the money goes through the government, it would compromise their independence. The argument does not make sense knowing that the media already enjoy public funding. And if public funding compromises their independence, why doesn’t private funding?

Few people object to web giants funding the media. After all, they are responsible for spreading misinformation. As tobacco companies are taxed to finance health, Google, Facebook and other web giants should contribute journalistic information. In contrast, Android 18 seems to cause more problems than it solves.

For better and for worse, the internet has democratized information. The media no longer have a monopoly. Not all information is equal, as a society we must encourage quality information. But it’s all in the way.