October 17, 2022
It’s a time honoured tradition in Canadian politics to bootstrap one’s cause with public opinion polls.
Last Friday Abacus released a poll commissioned by Google that surveyed 2,207 Canadians on the Online News Act Bill C-18. The announcement came just days before Google Canada’s Colin McKay appears before the Commons Heritage Committee tomorrow at 11 a.m.
The pollster Abacus said its findings demonstrate public support for Google’s C-18 amendments:
The results clearly indicate that while few Canadians are paying close attention to what is happening with the Online News Act, the issues with Bill C-18 raised by Google resonate with Canadians and cause them to want legislators to amend the bill to address concerns they have with it – including Liberal supporters and those most familiar with the legislation.
Most Canadians use Google Search daily. It is an essential part of their life. They depend on Google to solve their problems, find information, and access news. But there is little appetite to pay to access that content – whether personally or by the platforms.
If Bill C-18 fundamentally changes the user experience, if it helps to spread misinformation or supports organizations that don’t follow core journalistic standards, Canadians will be dissatisfied and support for the legislation will quickly fall….
After being informed of Google’s concerns with Bill C-18, Canadians were asked whether the federal government and Parliament should work to amend the legislation to address these concerns or whether Google’s concerns are not that serious, and the legislation should pass as is.
59% felt the bill should be amended while only 15% felt it should be passed as it is. Another 27% were unsure.
It’s perhaps a small shortcoming of the amazing confluence of Google’s desire and the public mind that nobody including the survey respondents knows what Google’s amendments are.
If only that was the sole problem with the poll.
Alas the survey questions are loaded with argumentative premises and false claims about the Bill.
Initially, the poll establishes some base line information that should not surprise:
The public is hooked on free information and doesn’t want that to change.
The majority of the respondents believe (or say they believe) that news media is financially stable, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Overall, Abacus’ questions and analysis of the results could be summarized: “your government is tiptoeing legislation through Parliament that will result in search fees, gerrymandered search results, more click bait, and foreign propaganda. We can’t show them to you right now but Google’s amendments would fix all those things. Do you agree?”
Is that unfair to Google and Abacus? Here are the poll questions.
Q1. How familiar, if at all, are you with Bill C-18, the Online News Act, legislation that the federal government introduced to regulate the internet and support news organizations in Canada. It is currently being reviewed and debated in the House of Commons?
The answer was only 8% said they were very familiar with the Bill (25% were somewhat familiar). It was a useful question and the answer helps build Google’s narrative: few Canadians know what’s in Bill C-18.
Q2. After specifying the different things C-18 might accomplish, respondents are asked which goals are most important?
Again, a useful question. Here are the results:
Q3. Thinking specifically about [the financial health of] Canadian news and journalism, do you feel the news industry in Canada is…
The result: an astonishing 55% think the Canadian news industry is financially sustainable despite all of the reporting and documentation on the collapse of the advertising-reliant business model for news.
It’s sad to say, but the significant degree of counterfactual opinion probably does not enhance the authority of those respondents’ answers to the remaining questions.
Next are two questions in a row suggesting Bill C-18 will result in Google’s news compensation costs being passed along to consumers as search fees:
Q4. “Imagine you read an article on a Canadian news website and shared it on social media because you wanted others in your network to read it. Do you think the social media platform you shared it on should have to pay the news organization a fee for that?
“Q5. If you were searching for something on Google and a link to a news article appeared in your search. Would you pay a small amount to be able to click through and get to the page through Google?”
The results were negative of course. Who wants to pay for what’s free?
The Abacus summary of these replies states:
“69% are worried when they find out Online News Act would require companies like Google to pay news businesses simply so that they can help you find what you’re looking for. This is what’s known as a “link tax” and it fundamentally breaks the way search (and the internet) have always worked. Requiring payment for links risks limiting Canadians’ access to the information they depend on.” (Emphasis added)
Although not pointed out by Abacus to poll respondents, the Bill does not charge fees to news consumers.
At Google’s direction, Abacus seems to be threatening poll respondents and Canadian MPs that if C-18 is approved Google will pass along its costs of paying for news to consumers: even though Google didn’t do that in Australia after legislation similar to C-18 was passed in 2021.
The two questions are argumentative and misleading.
(Q6) Abacus also asks a question about the CRTC’s governance of the bargaining scheme under C-18. The specific question and results are not posted by Abacus but the pollster provides this summary:
“70% are worried when they find out that ‘the bill gives the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) unprecedented, sweeping new powers to regulate every aspect of the Canadian news industry even though these decisions are far outside of its expertise as a broadcast regulator.‘”(Emphasis added)
You could include me in that 70% of worriers if any of it were true. I mean, “unprecedented sweeping” powers sounds very bad: even though 92% of poll respondents probably have no idea what it’s describing.
The claim that the Commission will “regulate every aspect of the Canadian news industry” is preposterous and false.
As to whether the CRTC would be “far outside of its expertise as a broadcaster regulator,” the prose is embellished but identifies an important issue.
In its favour, the CRTC has extensive expertise in mediation and arbitration involving media companies.
As for journalism issues, the Commission has mostly left them to self regulation by those companies and lacks experience.
It’s an issue that should be addressed either by Parliamentarians or Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.
(Q7) The next question (again, only the Abacus summary of results is available) raises Google’s concern that faux news organizations will use the C-18 bargaining process to get money from Facebook and Google by gaming the definition of “an eligible news organization”:
“69% are worried when they find out “the proposed law uses an extremely broad definition for “eligible news businesses” and doesn’t require eligible news organizations to follow basic journalistic standards.” (Emphasis added)
The certification of an eligible news organization (ENO) in C-18 can take either of two paths.
The first accepts the existing certifications of Canadian daily newspapers as “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations” (QCJO) under section 248 Income Tax Act as implemented in 2019. That certification process has been considered a success.
As a benchmark of what kind of news organizations might be disqualified because of (the lack of) journalistic standards, it’s worth noting that the arm’s length independent journalist panel that administers the QCJO program decertified Rebel News in 2021 after initially granting it QCJO status.
Unless already certified as a QCJO, media companies seeking ENO status apply to the CRTC under section 27(1)(b) that requires them to “produce news content.”
News content is defined in section 2 as “content — in any format, including an audio or audiovisual format — that reports on, investigates or explains current issues or events of public interest.” (Emphasis added)
In addition, section 31 allows Facebook or Google to ask the CRTC to carve out any of an ENO’s various “news outlets” (e.g. a publication, website, or news show) that don’t match a more detailed description of news journalism. Here’s the text:
(2) A news outlet is to be a subject of the bargaining process if the Commission is of the opinion that the outlet is operated exclusively for the purpose of producing news content — including local, regional and national news content — consisting primarily of original news content that is
- (a) produced primarily for the Canadian news marketplace;
- (b) focused on matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes;
- (c) not focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment; and
- (d) not intended to promote the interests, or report on the activities, of an organization, an association or its members.
While relying upon Google and Facebook to be the first identifier of faux news outlets, C-18 requires ENOs to do original news reporting. Moreover, section 31(2)(d) excludes many faux news organizations that might claim to being journalists.
The Bill could be tightened up in two respects.
It could establish a high bar for the amount of news in any outlets’ overall content and in general the CRTC could adopt the exhaustive and detailed QCJO regulation from the Income Tax Act.
The Bill could also require news outlets belong to a recognized self governing News Council.
Having said that, it was inflammatory and argumentative for Abacus to tell survey respondents that the C-18 contains “an extremely broad definition for ‘eligible news businesses’ and doesn’t require eligible news organizations to follow basic journalistic standards.”
The next question Q8:
“65% are worried when they find out “the Online News Act would effectively subsidize any outlet that “explains current issues or events of public interest”. This means that any opinion or commentary blog with two or more people could be eligible to receive funds.” (Emphasis added).
The definition of news content in section 2 does not only say “explain,” it also says “reports on and investigates” which Abacus appears to have omitted. That’s means news reporting, not just “opinion” or “commentary blog” (like the one you are reading).
Maybe Abacus doesn’t recognize the difference but most do. It’s a misleading question and the conclusion that “any opinion or commentary blog could be eligible” is false.
The next question Q9:
“60% are worried when they find out “foreign, state-owned outlets could be eligible, even if they are known sources of misinformation and propaganda, under the Act.” (Emphasis added).
What is the plausibility of “could?”
If the CRTC acts incompetently and recklessly? In the recent case of banning Russia Today the CRTC got the right result (but I would say in a hasty manner).
Better, look to the language of the Bill.
Misinformation and propaganda are not “news content” as defined in the Act, they are at best “opinion” and “blog commentary” which by themselves are not “news content” unless accompanied by reporting and investigating.
If Parliamentarians want to make the definition of “news content” more precise and demanding —fear-mongering has a way of motivating greater clarity— they might do so.
The last question Q10 is undoubtedly Google’s biggest concern:
“65% are worried when they find out “a section of the bill prohibits companies like Google from using ranking, or showing you the content most relevant to your search, first. It also could allow blogs, foreign state-owned media, or any other “eligible news business” to inflate their ranking in your search results, preventing Google from presenting you with the most reliable and useful content, making Search (and the internet) less useful and less safe.” (Emphasis added)
This is the scare-your-pants-off question, so let’s break it down.
First, the Bill’s “undue preference” provision in section 51 does not “prohibit” Google from “using ranking, or showing you the content most relevant to your search, first.” That is a false statement by quite a margin. Section 51 allows an ENO to lodge a complaint to the CRTC that Google’s algorithm is punitive to that ENO and the Commission should intervene.
Second, “blogs” and “foreign state media” would have to qualify as ENOs before being allowed to lodge a complaint. The likelihood of an opinion blog becoming an ENO is nearly zero and the only “foreign state media” likely to become an ENO are legitimate public broadcasters like the BBC (assuming it provides Canadian news in Canada).
What section 51 actually says is that legitimate ENOs can complain to the CRTC that Google’s ranking algorithm is “unjust, undue, or unreasonable” in favouring another source over the complainant’s content.
“Undue preference” is a known legal term with a history. So it’s difficult to see how a complaint would succeed unless (a) Google was favouring the rankings of its own journalism or undisclosed paying customers or (b) was punishing an ENO as a bargaining tactic.
If Heritage MPs are prepared to have a civilized conversation about the Bill (unlike the filibustered C-11), the undue preference clause will be an important issue to study carefully.
The clause is probably not integral to the central purpose of the Act —-rebalancing commercial bargaining power between Platforms and news organization—- except to ban reprisals against ENOs by Google and Facebook. But that doesn’t make it a bad idea.
The real issue is that Big Tech companies are prepared to go to the wall over allowing regulators to peer into the black box of their commercial algorithms. Expect a big fight.
If the Abacus poll proves anything it’s the difficulty of gleaning informed answers from an uninformed public.
Feeding respondents questions that are argumentative, misleading or based upon false premises does not help.
Previous polls on C-18 from Nanos (for the Globe and Mail) and Pollara (for NewsMedia Canada which supports C-18) kept the questions general enough that the polls were effective in testing general attitudes and public mood, rather than the fine points of legislation.
Perhaps Abacus might approach the subject differently next time. It might have to find a different sponsor.