Connecting Online Platform Audiences to News Media Content: Is There A “Missing Link”? 

Credit: Pixabay

Last week I talked about developments in Australia, Canada and the US regarding how to find ways to require large online platforms that aggregate news content for their users to share some of their digital advertising revenues with the producers of that content, namely news publishers and broadcasters. Australia has already taken action, successfully. Canada is currently going through the process of enacting legislation, Bill C-18, the Online News Act. The US is still studying the issue.

As Bill C-18 continues to make it way through the Canadian parliamentary process, much attention has been focussed on whether hyperlinks to content should be covered by the law. Google is firmly opposed, claiming that including links will “break” Google Search, (among numerous other criticisms), despite the fact that links were also covered in the Australian legislation that Google eventually came to terms with.

Bill C-18 targets not just “snippets”, those mini-excerpts containing the gist of the story used by the platforms to entice readers, but also hyperlinks. It is a standard feature of copyright law in most if not all countries that posting a link to content does not constitute copyright infringement. If I don’t have the rights to reproduce an article or to publish the photos in an article, I can nonetheless point my readers to the article and the photos by giving them the URL, usually by embedding a link to the original material. I haven’t copied anything. All I have done is tell people where to access the original, which could be seen as a positive in that I am directing more traffic to the original site. That is what the platforms maintain they are doing when it comes to linking to news articles. But Canada nonetheless intends to include links in the Bill’s coverage because to exclude them would not target the “problem”, the problem being that the big platforms use links—among other devices–to aggregate material produced by others (and to profit from it). Bill C-18’s solution is to require the platforms to compensate producers of media content when they make that content available to online audiences. “Making available” through facilitation of access is the key action, not copying or reproducing, although that is also covered in the legislation. 

While copyright law does not generally cover linking (reproducing short excerpts, or “snippets”, is potentially different although there are legitimate debates about how little or how much can be included in an excerpt without infringing copyright), C-18 does not approach this as a copyright issue. Instead, it takes a competition approach–although the minister bringing forth the legislation is not the minister responsible for competition policy, (i.e. the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development), but rather the Heritage Minister–and the agency responsible for implementing the legislation will be the Telecommunications and Broadcasting regulator, the CRTC, not the Competition Bureau. The Online News Bill is intended to redress an imbalance in the market and an imbalance in bargaining power, just as the Australian legislation did. This differs from the European approach which created a new ancillary copyright, a publishers’ press right, which provided news publishers with a new lever to use in bargaining with the platforms. Notably, hyperlinking is exempt from the provisions of this ancillary right which was brought in under Article 15 of the EU’s Copyright Directive.

The Canadian legislation is all about providing “fair compensation for the news content that is made available”. It doesn’t mention hyperlinks specifically, but since links are a vehicle to make content available, it seems clear they are covered.

The relevant provision in the Bill–Section 2(2)—reads (with Part b being the important element insofar as links are concerned);

For the purposes of this Act, news content is made available if

(a) the news content, or any portion of it, is reproduced;

or

(b) access to the news content, or any portion of it, is facilitated by any means, including an index, aggregation or ranking of news content.

It is well known that publishers themselves often post links to their own content on the platforms, especially Facebook, as the platform is a key tool in attracting an audience. The platforms will say, of course, why should we be required to pay the publishers when they themselves have posted the link? The answer, I believe, comes in the wording of the legislation requiring “fair compensation”. One would expect the calculation of fair compensation to take into account the benefit that news publishers gain by posting links to the platforms. That benefit will need to be offset against the greater benefit that the platforms gain by using news content to attract viewers and advertisers. That trade-off will normally be worked out during bilateral negotiations between the publishers and the platforms, with the government, in the form of the CRTC, stepping in only if there is a failure to reach agreement.

So, yes, linking is covered (but not because of copyright) but the calculation of benefit from posting the links is subject to negotiation between the parties, adjudicated in the end, if necessary, by a three-person arbitral panel. That panel would be selected by the parties from a roster maintained by the CRTC. If the parties cannot agree, the arbitral panel would be appointed by the CRTC itself. “Fair compensation” will likely not be easy to determine, but with the spectre of arbitration in the background I am confident the parties will reach agreement.

Does this mean there is a slippery slope toward a so-called “links tax”, whereby individual users (like me and you) will be constrained from posting links and may be required to compensate the entity to which we are linking. No, that is not the case. The legislation is very clear that it will apply only to a “digital news intermediary” that has a “significant bargaining power imbalance between its operator and news businesses”. That definition will catch Google and Meta, but they will be exempted if they can demonstrate to the regulator that they have already entered into agreements with news businesses on the basis of fair compensation. That is what happened in Australia. Under the threat of designation under the News Media Bargaining Code, the platforms managed to get to “yes” with most news providers, thus avoiding being designated.

Despite all the bluster from Google that including links in the legislation and making them subject to compensation through negotiation will “break the internet” (we’ve heard this one before with regard to site blocking), nothing like that is going to happen. Google is not going to stop providing Search in Canada. When they threatened this in Australia, Microsoft stepped in and offered Bing as a replacement, at the same time going on the record to make it clear they had no problem in complying with Australian law. (see “Google’s Tussle Over Payment for News Content in Australia: Microsoft Scrambles the Cards–With Positive Implications for Canada and Others”).

So lets see how it all works out. There is a lot of hyperbole and misinformation being spread about C-18. (For a detailed deconstruction of Google’s criticisms, click here—yes, a hyperlink!) Maybe the legislation is not perfect in all respects but it’s undergoing careful review, currently at the Committee stage. And then it will go to the Canadian Senate for more review. Google and Meta will eventually swallow hard, bite the bullet, and move on. You can’t blame them for opposing what they see as not being in their corporate interests, and for lobbying hard against the legislation. That is how the system works. But there is no way the Canadian government or Canadian public should be panicked or stampeded into backing down. Inclusion of links within the ambit of the legislation, and making them subject to negotiation, is not a radical proposal. It is a necessary step to redressing a market imbalance, giving some bargaining power to news media content producers to enable journalism to survive, and reining in two digital behemoths that have had it all their way for far too long.

© Hugh Stephens, 2022. All Rights Reserved.

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