A news chat with MP Rick Perkins on the Online News Act



Canada’s federal Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is legislation passed in June requiring certain tech companies to pay Canadian news publishers when they publish links to news stories.

Over July and August, Meta responded by blocking links to almost all news content for Canadian users, preemptively avoiding any potential conflict with the legislation. Along with Meta, Google has indicated they don’t intend to pay news publishers for links to their content.

With most news content now stripped from Canadians’ Facebook and Instagram timelines, I prepared to write an opinion piece for The Barnacle sharing my thoughts on what this means for Canadian community media.

On August 7, I emailed Rick Perkins, Conservative Member of Parliament for South Shore—St. Margarets, asking for a quote on why he voted against this bill.

On the afternoon of August 9, Perkins – Vice-Chair of the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Industry and Technology – called me. 

In the ensuing conversation, he shared his thoughts on Bill C-18 and the role of the CBC in Canada’s digital media landscape.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

*

Jesse Ward: You voted against Bill C-18. Could you speak your mind on why you voted that way?

Rick Perkins: It’s a misguided bill that is based on – in my view – on a concept of a lie. And that’s actually not just my view, it’s the view of journalists like Andrew Coyne and others. 

That somehow, me putting a link to an article on a social media post, somehow diminishes advertising revenue from those who created the content – when actually, it produces the reverse. It drives traffic.

The primary driver of the loss of income on newspapers in particular is the loss of classified ads, which has nothing to do with social media. It has to do with Craigslist and Kijiji and other things, right? Where people have found new ways to buy and sell things and don’t need classified ads, which were 25 per cent or more of newspaper revenue. That’s disappeared. So that’s put the financial viability, obviously, of newspapers in particular into question, and almost no business can withstand a 25 percent loss.

The cause of that loss isn’t social media, the cause of that loss is where people buy and sell stuff. 

So to try and make that up on the fact that me, or you, or anybody else posts a link which drives people to the originator’s website – your website, the Globe and Mail’s website, the Toronto Star’s website, CBC’s website – it’s actually a traffic driver to expose people to publications, both large traditional media and – newer media like Substack. 

It actually generates traffic because people aren’t going to the Chronicle Herald’s website. They’re not going to the Global Mail’s website directly.

I’m older, so I still subscribe to them. I go there. I have a subscription to the Globe and Mail, I have a subscription to the Chronicle Herald, and I go to actually get the Saturday paper – which is bizarre to my nieces and nephews, but I actually want the paper in paper form. I wish I had more of a paper form, but you know, the market doesn’t want that anymore. To me, there’s nothing better than sitting with a cup of coffee and reading a real piece of paper. 

So, the world has changed. This is how people consume and find and discover media. I’m discovering media that I didn’t know existed or never really got exposed to simply by social media.

So, I’m more in agreement with Jen Gerson, who wrote for traditional media and still does – I see she’s got a piece in the Globe and Mail today – and Andrew Coyne on the issue, that this is actually going to be a loss. 

Because I’m a marketing guy, right? That’s my background. 

When I would buy ad space – radio, TV, print, for the retail companies I worked for, there’s lots of measures of that, right? 

It’s all about the number of eyes you get, and I had media buying agencies that would buy those things based on our target audiences. 

Based on what the Print Management Bureau and others said were the eyes on those publications, or the ears, when it comes to radio. 

What they could charge for those ads exponentially grew at the number of views or ears on that ad, that measurement, right? 

It would eat up my budget. So the loss of anywhere up to 30 per cent or more in traffic – depends on the stats you read – of social media driving people to the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Chronicle Herald site – it’s going to diminish what they can charge for the ads on their site. 

So, to me, it’s an illogical thing. 

I don’t get why the Chronicle Herald and others are supporting this bill, other than the fact that 75 per cent of the money that it was theoretically going to raise goes to the CBC, Rogers, and Bell. And that’s according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer of the House of Commons

It doesn’t leave much for everybody else – doesn’t leave much for independent newspapers like The Herald or like your paper, if it ever got down to yours. 

So, we proposed amendments. We tried to fix it both in committee and then again in the Senate, to do a couple of things. One, to remove the CBC from being the primary beneficiary of that money. It already gets taxpayer money. It doesn’t need more. The Liberals voted against that, and so did the NDP. 

We also tried to amend the bill to remove the tax on the links. I’m all for protection of copyright. You write something, publish it – if somebody puts that on social media directly without your permission, you should be able to earn revenue from that. But a link, actually, is nothing but a marketing tool. It’s a different form of advertising that drives people to your site.

So I’m baffled as not only, now, a member of Parliament, but as a former marketing guy who bought ad space – why media would think it would be good to lose that. Because now we see a lawsuit being filed to try and force the company to do something that the bill allows – the bills that the Liberals passed lets them make the business choice not to post those links. 

They’re being condemned by the media for abiding by the law. That doesn’t make sense to me. You can make a choice – if you post links, they should get paid, if you don’t post them, you don’t pay the tax. So they’re not posting the links.

Those newspapers and those websites where the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the Herald and every other media publication exists and tries to fight the battle out, they are still available. It hasn’t diminished my ability to access them. It’s just changed where I go to do it, if Facebook and Google decide not to allow the posting of those links. 

I think it’s very short-sighted as a business guy, as a marketing guy, now as a public policy guy. It’s contradictory, what folks are saying. The media folks should be looking at this and understanding that that’s what’s driving the traffic to the site for them to get the ad revenue that they’re getting now, or the subscriptions. It exposes me to publications around the world I never looked at before that I might decide to subscribe to.

Ward: Yeah. The thing that strikes me is that it doesn’t seem that there was any research demonstrated that justified thinking it would be a likely outcome for Meta and Google to actually start to fund these news outlets, and there wasn’t a plan B for if they don’t.

Perkins: You’re right, and it’s baffling, because – former Minister of Canadian Heritage Rodriguez, in committee, that was brought up. He was asked about it many times by MPs from all sides and again in the Senate and they just said, “Well, we think they’re bluffing.” Why would they be bluffing? 

They all have a choice of whether to pay a tax or not. Based on what? People who use their site for free. Why would I be bound for that unlimited amount of money? Arbitrated, ultimately, probably by the CRTC. Why would I do that?

You know, way back when I was much younger, I was actually a political staffer in my twenties in the Mulroney government, and there was a “Dean of the Deputy Ministers,” a fellow named Arthur Kroeger. The College of Public Affairs at Carleton University is now named after him. 

Arthur taught me – he said, “Rick, when you’re drafting legislation, you have to spend most of your time thinking about the law of unintended consequences.” 

Because every change you make in legislation has its intended effect, but also will cause – every piece of legislation – unintended things. People will react, the market reacts, lawyers react, everybody reacts. So if you’re proposing a change to legislation – employment insurance, publishing or whatever – you have to think through all of the ways that those affected might react and try and figure them out, whether or not that actually is worse, for everybody. 

And it seems to me that they never thought, even though it was raised time after time – and it was raised in committee by Google and Facebook, they said, “Look, we’re not going to we’re not going to pay this tax the way you’ve written it, we are not going to publish the links.” It’s not like they didn’t say it.

Ward: Yeah.

Perkins: So everyone is surprised. Well, some people are surprised. The government is surprised and newspapers are surprised that they’re finally following through on what they said they would do, which is something the law allows them to do. Yeah. I agree with you. It’s totally baffling.

Ward: Yeah. When I look at all the data that’s available, and from anecdotal experience, on the media consumption habits of Canadians – especially young people – they’re on social media. That’s where most people find headlines they follow to stories, that’s where they discover new media sources. If this leads to long-term consequences where more social media platforms and Google results are not a place where you can actually discover news – to me, I’m concerned Canadians’ news media consumption habits won’t adapt. People just won’t discover new sources of news. 

Perkins: I was supposed to be the last speaker on Bill C-18. But it came back from the Senate and then there were procedural things that resulted in me and one other person not speaking. 

Your point is, in some ways, right out of the speech I never got to give, which is – you know, we didn’t bring in government legislation to make sure that payphones continue to exist. People decided that they want to use cell phones. We didn’t bring in a law saying that you had to maintain a landline at home anymore because Bell’s losing landline business. We didn’t do that. The companies have adapted. Bell gets more money, probably, from cell phones than they ever got from landlines. 

And I know everyone’s been struggling – and we’re a small market, right, Canada? For everything. And one of my beefs has always been – and this is a total aside – has been the CBC’s digital footprint. They give it away for free – when news media only can survive, and journalism’s important, news media is a fundamental element of democracy, right? And news media can only survive now because the market has changed in a digital, online world.

For the government to be absorbing through the CBC, a lot of the talent and all of the money, by giving it away for free. 

And what to me arguably is probably Canada’s largest digital news site, CBC, and it’s free, is to me way away from what the intent of creating the CBC was. 

And it’s actually harming news media in Canada and the private sector and your community papers. Because they’ve got community elements to what they do online on news, and they’ve got provincial and national, and they’re giving it away for free and you’re trying to compete with that, and everybody else is trying to compete with that – and charge for it. 

So, to me, the government is culpable in this issue that the news media are facing on the financial viability of the business, because it’s taking up all the space by the government subsidizing a government crown corporation to provide this for free to everybody – they don’t even charge for it. 

And I don’t see anywhere in CBC’s charter that online was what they’re supposed to be doing. I mean, they were supposed to be providing services at a time when basically we had no Canadian voice. We have lots of Canadian voices now, and CBC is helping kill it through giving away their online news for free.

Ward: What do you think is the solution here for Canadian news media? Between how Bill C-18 should be handled, different government subsidy options, the future of the CBC.

Perkins: The CBC part – you know, our leader has talked about this thing of defunding the CBC. I have a particular beef which has come from lots of years of talking with journalists who aren’t working for the CBC, and some of them who used to work for the CBC, saying, “We’re all struggling because the CBC is doing this for free.” 

Like, why? Why would I pay for a digital subscription for the Chronicle Herald or for Lighthouse Publishing or for the Globe and Mail if the CBC digital news website has all that for free? I think that’s a problem. 

The bill – obviously we’ve said we will scrap the bill, but we and the Liberals have pointed this out – when we ran in 2021, we did say that we would find some way to try and deal with this issue. But it’s not the issue, in our view, of one publishing a link – me and you publishing a link. I don’t think that’s the thing, because I think that hurts media. 

So I think that needs to be reversed, which is the hyperlink issue, which we tried to amend a couple of times in this process. And with that legislation, sometimes our lot in the opposition is – instead of, we don’t get to scrap it, but try to make it a little more palatable. 

And if you’re going to have this fund, at least make the Government Crown Corporation exempt from it. Yeah, but they can’t get any of the money. Because that’s a lot of money going to three very large companies.

Ward: There’s an idea that the CBC represents underserved markets that otherwise might not have news coverage.

Perkins: Well, that’s true in traditional broadcast, but it’s not true online. I can access news from anywhere in the world online no matter where I am and live anywhere in Canada. I can access CTV, Global, your subscription, anywhere. 

If you grew up in Lunenburg – what the great thing about the world now is that if you grew up in Lunenburg and now live in northern Canada, I can go online and read your publication. I can go online to read LighthouseNow. I could never do that before in the traditional world. I could even pay for it if I want to stay in touch with my community.

So there are things you can do online in news that you couldn’t do before, because you were limited to this physical piece of paper that I love so much. 

But at the end of the day, it actually broadens your market, if you can figure out how to utilize it, how to connect to it. You know, there are a lot of people in Nova Scotia living in other parts of this country. They can still keep in touch with home online. And they couldn’t do that before. 

So I don’t buy that the CBC represents providing local news, in a way, in fact, I think it’s hurting it. It’s hurting community papers. If you could make sure that everybody working in Fort Mac who’s from Lunenburg County still wants to read your publication, you could market to them, but you’re having trouble competing with a gazillion CBC local reporters here that do multiple duties – fair enough. Right? 

Paul Withers – the best guy in Atlantic Canada, in my mind, on the fishery. And I like Paul, but he’s writing for everything – and everything he does goes online, not just his stand-ups, but it goes online in a printed form for free, competing with anyone else who cares about the fishery and South Shore of Nova Scotia, Southwest Nova, who go read Paul Withers rather than read the local papers. 

If you weren’t competing with the CBC that way, you might have more subscribers. You have more subscribers, you might have more reporters to cover these things.

I think that’s the vicious hole we’ve gotten ourselves into. The CBC is contributing vastly to it. Look, I listen to CBC Radio every day. I believe in CBC Radio. I just think the CBC news coverage issue, online, on top of C-18, is just hurting our ability to develop private sector entities.

Now, there is one area that’s thriving, right? I’ve heard some people call this, “Point of view journalism.” So when you read Jen Gerson’s Substack and stuff, and Paul Wells’ stuff – and I love Paul Wells, he’s a great writer. It’s caustic and funny, but it’s all opinion stuff, right? And I’ll pay for that.

And journalists are finding a way to make a living that way, which is great, but they’re not covering, you know – the elver fishery and poaching in the spring in Nova Scotia, right? Whereas local media could. But local media has a hard time finding the resources to cover all these issues. 

If you weren’t competing online, with the Government of Canada-funded institution for online digital stuff, at a minimum – I don’t think CBC should be delivering digitally.

Because that’s the only way this industry is going to survive – is online. And to have the government basically taking all that revenue, and ad space – they sell ad space. Right? They’re not operating without ads online.

Ward: Yeah.

Perkins: So, you know, there’s no magic bullet for any particular industry. But I think we’re not recognizing the things that we do in Canada that are hurting the ability of publications like yours to grow. And you could grow if you know, somebody in Fort Mac did not have the ability to go on the CBC news website, click “Local”, click “Nova Scotia” and read what’s going on. Without having to actually read any local publications.

Ward: Yeah. Thank you so much for your time, Rick.

Perkins: *Laughter* That’s my own little rant on Bill C-18.


Comments

One response to “A news chat with MP Rick Perkins on the Online News Act”

  1. […] — The Lunenburg Barnacle talks Bill C-18 with Tory MP RICK PERKINS. […]