Sen. Paula Simons “unhopeful” about plan to make Google and Facebook pay for news

Government should've focused on "insane corporate concentration," she says, rather than the notion the platforms are "stealing" content

Senator Paula Simons has a lot of thoughts about Bill C-18 — the federal government’s Online News Act, which hopes to push Google and Facebook to fork over money to Canadian news outlets as compensation for links that appear on their platforms.

“Honest to god,” the senator told Ricochet earlier this month, “I really feel like this is written by people who have never used the internet.”

Not only does Simons represent Alberta as part of the Independent Senators Group, but prior to her appointment by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2018, she had a long career as a journalist, the bulk of which was spent at the Edmonton Journal.

Jesse Brown also has a lot of thoughts about Bill C-18.

Not only is he the host of the CANADALAND podcast and editor-in-chief of the Canadaland network, he’s also its publisher, founder, and majority owner. And as part of a group of publishers from other similarly-sized outlets, he’s been actively involved with lobbying on the bill.

As such, he explains to listeners at the start of today’s CANADALAND, “I cannot present myself to you as a reporter on this stuff. When I talk to politicians about it, I’m not just looking for answers to questions that I’m asking them on your behalf. No, I’m looking for this law to be changed, for my own company’s interests.”

As C-18 continues to trudge toward committee hearings in the Senate, Jesse speaks to Simons about issues with the bill — lobbying her in public and on the record, in what she cheekily terms an act of “radical transparency”:

Here are some (just lightly edited) excerpts of some of the comments and observations that Senator Simons offers in the episode:

On the shortsightedness of making Canadian news outlets dependent on Google and Facebook…

The premise of Bill C-18 is, “Hey, Google and Facebook, you have a lot of money. Give some money to Canadian news sites. Enter into negotiations with them to give them a bunch of money.”

Okay, well Google and Facebook do have a bunch of money. But not perhaps as much as we think they do, given that Facebook just laid off another 10,000 people this month. These are not golden geese that will lay golden eggs forever. So to hitch our wagons to these two companies, in the assumption that they will always be ultra-profitable and ultra-successful, is a bit shortsighted. We can see with Meta [Facebook’s parent company], and we can see certainly with Twitter, that it doesn’t take very much to take a profitable company and tank it if you make the wrong business decisions.

On why such dependence might also present a bit of a conflict for outlets…

The government has said in the Senate that they expect Google and Facebook to provide 35% of the operating revenues of Canadian newsrooms. That’s a tremendous amount of money. So let’s just pretend for a moment that Google and Facebook really are gonna provide 35% of your [Canadaland’s] budget, and the CBC’s budget, and the Toronto Star‘s budget. What kind of suasion does that give two gigantic American behemoths over Canadian news?

I mean, it was bad enough in the olden days, when, you know, the guy from advertising would come to my desk and tell me not to write a mean column about an advertiser because they might threaten to pull their advertising. But that happened. Now imagine that Google is providing 35% of your revenues. Are you going to be tempted, even subconsciously, to pull your punches when covering Google or covering Facebook?

On why news is more integral to Facebook than Facebook realizes…

I met with Facebook just the other day, and they said to me, “Oh, you know, our users don’t want to see news. They tell us again and again in surveys that they’re not interested in news, and that’s what their clickthroughs show.”

I said to them, “A poll only gets the answer to the question you ask.” If you ask, “Do you go to Facebook for news?” people say no. But people are not honestly reporting what they do, because if there’s a forest fire in your neighbourhood, if there’s, you know, a terrorist attack, if there’s a spree shooting, people absolutely go to Facebook for that news. If your community league is worried about a zoning thing in your neighbourhood, your community league is sharing articles from the newspaper about where the high-rise is gonna go. People get small-n news on Facebook all the time. And I think, if Facebook isn’t bluffing and it does completely throttle our capacity to share news articles [in response to the passage of C-18], I think a lot of people are gonna get mad.

On why Canadian advertisers should bear some responsibility for the decline of local news…

I had meetings a couple weeks ago. First I spoke with Jordan Bitove, who’s the publisher and new owner of the Toronto Star. And then I met with the people who run the St. Albert Gazette, which is a suburban newspaper just outside of Edmonton. And they made the same arguments to me. The argument was, “What’s happened to local advertisers? Why don’t they care about us?” You know, the small-town newspaper, the St. Albert Gazette — they also publish newspapers in, like, Westlock and Athabasca and places like that — they said even the town won’t place its ads in the newspaper. If the town has a zoning question or announcements of a public meeting, they do it online. They won’t support their local newspaper. Jordan Bitove made the same argument about, you know, why won’t the Royal Bank buy ads in the Toronto Star? So we have to take some responsibility as Canadians for destroying our own media, if Canadian companies and Canadian governments won’t advertise in their own local media sites.

On why the government should’ve considered framing the bill as a matter of breaking up monopolies

If the government had constructed a bill on a different paradigm, on a paradigm of corporate concentration in the advertising market… Google commands 90% of search globally. Ninety percent. I mean, that’s extraordinary. That’s not free-market capitalism; that’s a functional monopoly. So if a government — whether it’s the American government or the Canadian government or the Australian government — had said, “Look, the issue isn’t that you stole the news. The issue is that there is not healthy competition in the advertising and search markets, and therefore we want you to—”

Jesse jumps in: “You can say the word: antitrust.”

Yeah. If you used combines legislation, if you had the Competition Bureau deal with this, I think that would have been a much more logical nexus. But because everybody got obsessed with the idea of stealing the news… I mean, the issue is follow the money. And the problem is that we have this insane corporate concentration, where Google and Facebook together are 80% of the advertising market in Canada. And so all of that advertising money leaves the country and goes to fund these giant corporations who are in no way accountable here.

On how close much of Canada is to an information precipice…

I care as passionately about the future of Canadian news as anybody, and I particularly care about local news. I mean, Canadaland does a really important job, but it does not report on school board meetings in Fredericton or zoning meetings in Burnaby. Nobody reports on those, except local news sources.

I mean, it’s nice that Toronto has four newspapers, but many cities are at risk — I mean, major cities are at risk of having none. So we need to make sure that people get news that they actually need in their communities to figure out the future of their local democracies. And I am very unhopeful that this bill will do that.

Top image includes photos of Senator Simons at the Edmonton Fringe and FRIENDS’ (formerly Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s) old poster campaign.

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