Thank you very much, Chair.
As you heard, my name is Michael Geist. I'm a law professor at the University of Ottawa, where I hold the Canada research chair in Internet and e-commerce law. My areas of specialty are in digital policy, including e-commerce, privacy, and intellectual property.
I appear today in a personal capacity representing only my own views. I'm particularly pleased to have the opportunity to speak before this committee on this study. My interest in the issue extends beyond my academic research into new business models and the laws and policies that often follow.
For more than 15 years I've written regularly for a wide range of Canadian media. This includes large media organizations like the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, specialty and local publications such as The Hill Times and Vue Weekly, and newer online publications such as The Tyee, The Huffington Post, and iPolitics. In that capacity, I've witnessed first-hand the different readers, the different business models, and the different approaches to content. I've also been on the receiving end of cuts due to shrinking budgets as well as the conflicts that sometimes arise between editorial and business departments.
My comments today are divided into two sections. The first section is my take on the current landscape and the second is a discussion of potential policy reforms.
With respect to the current landscape, I've been following this study and the committee hearings closely. I note that you've heard from a wide range of witnesses who have offered up a dizzying array of suggestions and recommendations for reforms. Much of the commentary emphasizes the critical link between strong independent media on the one hand and citizen participation and holding governments at all levels to account for their actions on the other.
While there is little debate over the essential role of journalism, the tougher questions are whether policies are needed to save or assist existing news organizations and whether emerging digital alternatives can provide an effective substitute. I'm reminded that people like Clay Shirky, a well-known media professor in the United States, predicted the current struggles many years ago.
Indeed, in a widely read piece in 2009, Shirky wrote about the media concern with the digital world. He said:
Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.
While there are policies that merit consideration, Shirky's point is that the general public newspaper, as we have known it, can't compete with the Internet. It's not solely a function of lost revenue, such as classifieds, or declining readership; rather, the newspaper's role in aggregating diverse content is less relevant today, and that package has far less value than it once did, given that there are now other alternatives.
Moreover, newspapers face far more competition than ever before. In my view, some newspapers are disappearing not because of too few voices but because, at least under their economic model, there are too many. With few exceptions, the content they produce has substitutes from cheaper online organizations, NGOs, bloggers, and a myriad of other sources. We can debate the quality and editorial product, but there are alternatives for virtually all forms of information traditionally published, sometimes almost on an exclusive basis, by newspapers in the past.
When there is no substitute or premium placed on the content, experience shows the market will pay. Hence the success of financial and some sports information, as well as some specialty paywalled publications. For general interest publications, though, I think the question is whether digital news organizations, which enjoy low entry barriers, a reach into new audiences, and innovative business models, can in some instances replace some of those traditional organizations. I believe that there is some evidence to suggest that it can, at least in some areas.
For example, political news coverage is often viewed as most critical in holding governments to account. Some have pointed to the regional decline of membership in the Parliamentary press gallery as evidence of the crisis. I think it's more instructive to see how many new digital-only organizations are investing in original political reportage.
The current gallery membership includes newcomers such as The Huffington Post, Tyee—who I know you heard from—rabble.ca, National Observer, and VICE News. Moreover, there are a host of experienced freelance journalists whose work appears in many venues alongside specialty digital publications such as iPolitics, Blacklock's Reporter, and The Wire Report.
The work of journalists at these publications, along with the niche print sources and experts who blog or write independently, offers us the chance to reach different audiences and to cover specialized issues in greater depth than is often found in larger newspapers, which frequently emphasize big-picture concerns.
That's my take on the landscape. With that, I'd like to turn a little bit to some of the policy issues.
In the face of the obvious decline of some well-known news organizations, the temptation to do something is unsurprising, and there are, I believe, steps that can be taken to assist in the digital transition. However, we should be very wary of reforms that simply prolong the life of some unsuccessful entrenched entities or that have serious unintended consequences. Some of those—the ones that I'm concerned about—include proposals for taxes on Internet providers as a source of new revenue. This would be the equivalent of a digital tax on everything, making it costlier for Canadians to access the Internet and exacerbating the digital divide.
Another source of concern, I think, are the proposals we've seen at times for what might be seen as link taxes on digital aggregators, who drive traffic to original sites and only aggregate content that is made available by the originating source. These proposals have serious free speech concerns and run the risk of reducing the diversity of voices.
Third, we've heard of some proposals to reform copyright fair dealing by dispensing with the long-standing rule that copyright protects expression, not ideas. This runs the danger of protecting facts, excluding others from reporting, which I think would undermine reporting and add costs to other groups. Indeed, I think suggestions that somehow fair dealing and the expansion to include education have any implications for this are simply wrong. I believe these changes could have serious detrimental effects on the Canadian digital landscape and ultimately harm new entrants that offer hope for more media choice.
What can be done? I think the policy goals should be premised on levelling the playing field, with the priority being good journalism regardless of the source.
I'd like to identify five possible steps.
First, the foundation for a robust digital media world is access for all, as both participants and readers. This means addressing the digital divide with world-class broadband that is accessible and affordable to all Canadians. We still aren't there in Canada, and experience suggests that the market alone will not solve the issue. Our emphasis should be on affordable equipment and affordable Internet access, along with digital skills development.
Second, with respect to Canada's public broadcaster, I know that the CBC's emphasis on digital delivery of news content has created frustration with many established news organizations. Reconciling the need for the CBC to remain relevant by embracing digital delivery with the financial impact on private sector news services could be addressed by requiring the public broadcaster to adopt an ad-free approach to its online news presence. That would ensure that it reaches its digital audience but does not compete directly with the private sector for advertising dollars.
Third, there have been, as I pointed out earlier, what I believe are harmful tax policy suggestions, but I think there are some useful possibilities as well. Private news services could benefit from a change to allow tax deductions for advertising on Canadian websites. Online services, I believe, should remain unregulated and free from mandatory contributions, but should be subject to general sales taxes. Levying GST or HST on Canadian services such as CraveTV while leaving foreign services in the media space like Netflix tax free would create a tax revenue shortfall and place domestic services at a disadvantage compared to their foreign counterparts.
Fourth, remove access barriers for journalism. This includes access to information rules at all levels of government and better recognition of journalists from all organizations in press conferences and availability.
Finally, focus on journalism, not organizations. For example, I believe the recommendations that you heard from the Canadian Association of Journalists on the value of embracing non-profit journalism, which has worked elsewhere, are excellent. While state subsidies for newspapers should be rejected, funding models for journalism projects as a media equivalent of the Court Challenges program, for example, might be helpful.
In conclusion, the uncertainty associated with digital models, the loss of jobs, and the future of some of Canada's best-known media organizations unsurprisingly elicit sadness, apprehension, and concern. However, emergence of new voices and innovative approaches of older ones point to the likelihood that journalism is neither dead nor dying. The trick is to avoid policy reforms that may do more harm than good and to trust in a transformation that has more access and more voices as its foundation.
I look forward to your questions.