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CRTC given $8.5M for online news regulation as critics question its capacity

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A person navigates to the on-line social-media pages of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on a cell phone in Ottawa on Monday, May 17, 2021. Ottawa is giving $8.5 million to The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to develop a regulatory regime covering the re-use of journalism by digital giants. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa has earmarked $8.5 million in the budget to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to develop a regulatory regime on digital giants' reuse of online news.

But experts are questioning whether the CRTC has the expertise for the task and whether it's already overstretched. 

"Never has a Canadian government entrusted the CRTC with this much responsibility at a time when it is so lacking in public confidence and expertise," said Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa's Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez last week introduced a bill to support Canada's independent media modelled on an Australian law. 

The online news bill, known as Bill C-18, would force tech companies such as Google and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, to compensate Canadian news organizations for reusing their work on their platforms.

Digital platforms that fail to comply with the new law could face penalties of up to $15 million per day for repeated non-compliance.

The companies will have six months to negotiate private deals to compensate Canadian media outlets for reusing their news content or be forced to reach an agreement, if the federal bill becomes law. 

The CRTC will monitor for non-compliance by online platforms and ensure that the independence of news outlets is not undermined by the deals.

Peter Menzies, a former vice-chair of the CRTC, said it was "ridiculous" to choose it as the regulator for the online news bill. 

"The CRTC has absolutely zero history in publishing or in user-generated content business models, which makes it the absolutely wrong organization to be involved in oversight," he said.

The regulator is already facing a big expansion of its role with the government's parallel online streaming bill which extends broadcasting laws to platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime so they too support and promote Canadian content. 

In Bill C-11, Rodriguez has asked the CRTC to regulate streaming services and video-sharing platforms including YouTube, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+. 

A CRTC spokesman said it would be working with the Treasury Board, which oversees government spending, to get funds needed to fulfil its new duties.

"If adopted by Parliament, Bills C-11 and C-18 will bring increased responsibilities to the CRTC," said Eric Rancourt. 

"In regards specifically to Bill C-18, the CRTC has a strong track record of implementing effective policies and adapting its approaches over time to the evolving market for news in both TV and radio, and with alternative dispute resolution under both the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Acts." 

Laura Scaffidi, press secretary to Rodriguez, said the CRTC "has served Canadians for over 50 years." 

“Beyond potential arbitration, the CRTC’s role in administering this legislation is fairly light-touch and based on clear criteria in the bill," she said. 

"The CRTC will help ensure the process is transparent and meets the public interest as set out in section four of the act: enhance fairness in the Canadian digital news marketplace and contribute to its sustainability, including independent, local news," she said. 

She said the $8.5 million in the budget would help the CRTC "to administer this legislation quickly and to build capacity where needed."

After the act comes into force, online platforms would have to cover any costs associated with administrating arbitration.

The online news bill was welcomed by the Canadian news industry, which has seen 451 outlets close their doors since 2008. Meanwhile, billions of advertising dollars have migrated from traditional news sources to tech platforms.

But experts predict platforms such as Meta and Google will fiercely resist putting a price tag on news links.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2022.

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Meta funds a fellowship that supports journalism positions at The Canadian Press.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press