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Liberals to introduce bill forcing online giants to compensate news outlets

The mandate letter to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez also directs him to ‘modernize’ the CBC

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The Liberal government plans to introduce a bill early next year forcing online giants to compensate news publishers, and will rework its online harms legislation following widespread criticism over its impact on constitutional and privacy rights.

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The mandate letter to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, released Thursday, says he should “swiftly introduce” legislation requiring digital platforms that earn revenue from “the publication of news content” to share revenues with Canadian news outlets.

The legislation, which the letter said would “level the playing field between global platforms and Canadian outlets,” will be based on the model used in Australia and “introduced in early 2022.”

The Australian model imposes bargaining rules for publishers and online platforms. It’s favoured by news publishers but drew strong opposition from Google and Facebook when it was introduced by Australia.

In the fall federal election, the Liberals promised to introduce a trio of bills involving online regulation of web giants and social media platforms within 100 days of Parliament’s Nov. 22 return.

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But in the mandate letter, the bill dealing with news compensation is the only one to have a deadline. The earliest it could be introduced is Jan. 31, when the House of Commons reconvenes after winter break.

The Liberals have also promised new legislation to tackle online harms, which drew condemnation and concern in a consultation the government held on the bill earlier this year. Internet law experts warned the legislation would violate Canadians’ constitutional and privacy rights, saying requirements for social media platforms to proactively monitor and take down content amount to censorship.

Even Canada’s research librarians said the bill would “all-but guarantee that the system will lead to the mass removal of content,” impacting individual freedom of expression rights.

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The mandate letter indicates that the government is taking those concerns into account. It directs Rodriguez to continue “efforts with the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada to develop and introduce legislation as soon as possible to combat serious forms of harmful online content to protect Canadians and hold social media platforms and other online services accountable for the content they host.”

But it also says this “legislation should be reflective of the feedback received during the recent consultations.”

It doesn’t include similar language, or a deadline, for the controversial Bill C-10, only directing Rodriguez to re-introduce “legislation to reform the Broadcasting Act to ensure foreign web giants contribute to the creation and promotion of Canadian stories and music.”

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That bill drew outrage after the government removed an exemption for user-generated content, which experts say would put social media posts by Canadians under the authority of a government regulator.

The government later amended the bill to ensure the CRTC would only have the power to force sites to promote Canadian content, but that didn’t mollify all concerns and the bill died on the order paper after the Senate refused to fast-track it.

Rodriguez’s letter also directs him to “modernize” the CBC. That includes updating its mandate “to ensure that it meets the needs and expectations of Canadian audiences, with unique programming that distinguishes it from private broadcasters.”

It also includes providing additional government funding to make CBC “less reliant on private advertising, with a goal of eliminating advertising during news and other public affairs shows.”

The letter outlines 18 tasks for Rodriguez, but tells him that his “immediate focus will be to ensure artists and cultural industries have the supports they need to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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