Canada’s Media Policy Should Not Be Driven by Coercion

Canadians need to take seriously the increasingly common attempts by global platforms to coerce law makers.

June 19, 2023
A newsstand in London’s Oxford Street. (Reuters)

In June 2023 Meta announced it would test the removal of Canadian news from Facebook for a sample of Canadians in response to Bill C-18, the proposed Online News Act targeting tech giants. The move replays Meta and Google’s 2021 response to similar legislation in Australia, where Google threatened to remove not only news but also access to its entire search engine for the country.

Whatever the merits of Bill C-18, Canadians need to take seriously the increasingly common attempts by global platforms to coerce law makers, and the track we lay for ourselves if we allow legislation to be set by threat rather than democratic processes.

As the early 2000s consensus that the internet is effectively ungovernable fades, countries are waking up to not only the ability but the need to establish governance over global platforms that dominate how we access information, connect with friends and family, and engage in commerce. Companies that had effectively free rein throughout their explosive growth are now contending with legislative battles on multiple fronts.

While lobbying, particularly by big tech, is not a new phenomenon, more common now is the threat to shut off services in response to proposed or enacted legislation. Firms like Google, Facebook and Amazon became cornerstones of markets and our daily lives by offering innovative goods and services — or, in some cases, by buying up rivals and engaging in anti-competitive conduct. Those services are now points of leverage in setting the legislative agenda of countries around the world.

Bill C-18 is not perfect. Journalists, academics and advocates have raised reasonable concerns including but not limited to the criticism that legacy broadcasters rather than news start-ups will benefit most from the law’s obligation for tech giants to compensate organizations for their content. But it’s clear that to the corporations concerned the quality of the legislation matters less than the impact on their business models.

In some cases, the bullying has even preceded draft legislation. In 2022, Amazon threatened Canadian industry policy makers with pulling its marketplace product from Canada if the government were to consider updates to its competition laws like those being proposed in the United States and enacted in the European Union. Coming as they did before public debate and deliberation, core to our democratic life, such threats are an attempt to shrink the window of acceptable policy thinking.

Beyond trying to derail new legislation and policy development, major tech firms are also increasingly comfortable making threats to reverse decisions by regulators that don’t go their way. The rejection of Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of video-game giant Activision Blizzard by the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority is just the most recent example. Executives of the two companies have been vocal in their criticism of the regulator’s decision, and Microsoft’s president has gone as far as to implicate the future of the UK economy, highlighting the “vital role” the tech giant has played in defending the country from cybersecurity threats.

These actions send a clear message: whatever the policy goals of elected governments and the institutions that support them, if major corporations do not get what they want they will threaten to pick up and go elsewhere.

Such coercive conduct is a symptom of a lax approach to corporate power not just in Canada but around the world. In exchange for their services, national governments have allowed the infrastructure of commerce, our information environment and social lives to become the domain of just a handful of corporate actors. Now those services are the leverage with which these companies aim to shape the outcomes of our democracies. Whether these firms intend to follow through on their threats is beside the point. That they feel free to make them has real implications for the future of governance in Canada.

Succumbing to this kind of pressure today would establish a precedent for Canada to receive further economic threats any time Canadians attempt to set policy contrary to the business goals of global giants. Canadian policy makers should have the confidence to pursue policies driven by the needs of Canadians rather than threats from global corporate giants.

But there is a remedy. Just as these firms operate across borders, Canada can work with global partners to set a baseline in important policy areas. Although the history of globalization is often considered a race to the bottom, the global scope of policy action in response to the power of digital platforms has been a heartening example to the contrary. Countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, not just superpowers and blocs, are taking steps to bring accountability to some of the most powerful corporations on earth.

Legislation like Bill C-18 can and should be modified based on input to Canada’s democratic process from a variety of perspectives. That process must not be hijacked by threats from concentrated corporate power.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Keldon Bester is a CIGI fellow and the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project, a think tank dedicated to addressing the harms of monopoly and building a more democratic economy.