OTTAWA–Internet giants like Facebook and Google should play a direct role in investing in “trusted local journalism” and Canadian culture, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said Tuesday.
Joly told the Star international tech companies have “not basically accepted they have a clear responsibility” to the countries they operate in, including promoting and funding cultural content, but also shaping public debate and discussion.
Far from being “neutral pipelines” for information, Joly said the digital platforms have immense power in deciding what content Canadians consume, from Netflix recommending your next TV binge to Facebook and Google promoting some news stories over others.
“I think more and more voices around the world are being raised regarding the fact that platforms need to recognize their responsibility, and that while they’re getting a huge piece of the pie of digital advertising revenues, there needs to be an approach to support more trusted local journalism,” Joly said in an exclusive interview.
“The benefits of the digital economy have not been shared equally. Too many creators, journalists, artists have been left behind, and there needs to be a better balance.”
Joly’s comments came as the federal government is preparing reviews of the Broadcast Act and the Telecommunications Act. The Liberals have also asked the CRTC to study how Canadians will consume content in the future.
But in recent weeks, the Liberals have taken a more aggressive tone with digital disrupters — saying the companies need to address problems like the spread of disinformation online, or face tighter federal regulations.
Taylor Owen, a digital media and global affairs researcher at the University of British Columbia, said he feels there’s been a “sea change” within the Canadian government on digital governance issues.
“They’re increasingly being exposed to the depth of the concerns (around digital platforms),” Owen said.
“This is having an impact, and they’re seeing a real political liability and a real policy challenge, right? That there’s something really going wrong here that we need to get ahead of.”
In response to Joly’s comments Tuesday, both Facebook Canada and Google Canada highlighted their efforts to date to promote access to local news, and promised more action later this year.
“Our goal is to show more news that connects people to their local communities, and we look forward to improving and expanding these efforts this year,” wrote Meg Sinclair, Facebook Canada’s head of communications.
“Google’s mission and business interest is to provide high-quality information to users across the entire scope of our products,” wrote Aaron Brindle, a spokesperson for Google Canada.
“And, to that end, we work hand in hand with Canadian publishers. We provide a platform for their success, helping them engage a wider audience, build new revenue streams and adopt new technologies.”
Joly faced intense criticism, especially in her home province of Quebec, over her “Creative Canada” policy rolled out last year. Most of that criticism revolved around a deal with streaming giant Netflix, which was not subject to new taxes or regulations, but committed $ 500 million to new production in Canada.
But Joly said Tuesday the Netflix deal was “transitional” in nature, and would not necessarily be used as a model for deals with internet platforms in the future.
In a speech at Stanford University last week, Joly said the Canadian government must address the “discoverability” of Canadian content — how easy it is for Canadians to find — as well as the “economic sustainability” of cultural content in a digital world.
Both concepts seem to be guiding the upcoming review of Canada’s broadcast and telecommunications policies, although Joly would not discuss the specifics of the review Tuesday.
“The questions we are looking at are how can we have more transparency around algorithms, which are the basis of having content pop up on your screen? What are the criteria taken into account when these algorithms are functioning?” Joly said.
A recent Public Policy Forum report found while digital ad sales came in at $ 4.6 billion in 2015, newspaper and television websites saw just $ 393 million of that total. That same year, internet advertising accounted for 34 per cent of all advertising revenue in Canada, compared to 27 per cent for television ads and 13 per cent for daily newspapers.
The revenue crisis has led a number of media groups, including Torstar chair John Honderich, to argue for some form of government intervention. The recommendations included changing tax rules to allow media outlets to compete on an equal footing with the likes of Google and Facebook, temporary digital tax credits, and allowing non-profit journalism funded by philanthropy.
In their 2018 budget, the Liberals committed $ 50 million over five years to support local journalism in underserved areas of the country. On Tuesday, Joly said she was open to continuing a dialogue with media industry representatives on other recommendations.