C for Collateral Damage: How Bill C-18 threatened an industry before implementation

Who should pay for the news?

Janine Palencia (she/her) // Contributor
Anaïs Bayle (she/her) // Illustrator

If you’ve been wondering where news on your Instagram or Facebook feeds have gone lately, the algorithm isn’t to blame (for once). Meta has been blocking news content in Canada in response to Bill C-18, and it’s unclear when — and if — it will end.

Bill C-18, known as the Online News Act, received royal assent on June 22, 2023. The act, which took effect last December, is intended to help alleviate economic challenges faced by Canada’s journalism industry. The act proposes a requirement for online platforms to negotiate payment with Canadian news organizations to publish news content. Tech giants Google and Meta responded to the bill’s passing, with Google opposing its function as a ‘link tax,’ and Meta deciding to end news availability in Canada.

For Canada, Meta began blocking content last summer, and has hit more than just news organizations in the process.

“We’re kind of being blocked by Meta, both on Facebook and Instagram, but I don’t know if we’re technically considered news by the government,” said Monika Warzecha, Digital Editor for The Walrus, an independent Canadian magazine. She saw their Facebook and Instagram accounts being blocked, resulting in a drop in engagement. “We’re kind of in a weird situation here,” Warzecha added.

Australia faced a similar situation in 2021, with Meta blocking news content in the country following similar legislation. This only lasted a few days, however, before negotiations with the government resulted in a quick reversal. Spain received a much longer sentence from Google following similar legislation—in 2014, Google News shut down its service in the country, and did not restore it until 2022.

For some organizations, Meta’s block realized more human costs. For the New West Anchor, one of Overstory Media Group’s local news publications, it led to anger and confusion among readers.

“We had a really great presence on social,” said former managing editor Ria Renouf. Renouf launched the New West Anchor in 2022 following her departure from CityNews, where she served as a TV reporter and radio news anchor. Renouf recalls the publication receiving emails from readers asking why they stopped being active on social channels. “Why aren’t you sharing our stuff? Why are you ignoring us?’ That just makes them hate us more because we’re the ones dealing with it on the ground.”

Economic sustainability has been a long-standing challenge in Canadian journalism amidst changes in media and technology. Over 470 news businesses have reportedly been shut down between 2008 and 2023, according to numbers from the Canadian Press. Angus Reid also found that 85 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 reportedly do not pay for news, and when Canadians were polled about C-18, an almost equal amount stated they get their news via social media as those who go directly to news sites or apps. Of that segment, 61 per cent were aged 18 to 34.

Bill C-18 was drafted in efforts to respond to the economic challenges faced by the journalism industry. It begs the question, however: even if it were to succeed, who stands to benefit?

“Even if Meta and Google agreed to all the terms that the government wants to implement, I’m not entirely sure whether The Walrus, as a magazine, would be able to access some of that revenue,” stated Warzecha. The Walrus currently runs on a non-profit model, with funds coming from The Walrus Foundation initiatives, advertising revenue and reader subscriptions.

“We’re living in a time where people can’t afford things,” said Renouf. “Someone’s got to pay for [journalism], and it can’t just be angel-funded by a billionaire, which is what happened with Overstory. It has to come from sustainable funding.”

*This article was last updated on November 28, 2023.

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