Will 2023 be the year Canada passes legislation for Big Tech?
Last week, I had a reflection in the Globe and Mail that was originally anchored around Bill C-18, but evolved to consider whether and how the strengths of Big Tech stocks should embolden regulators. 👇
Additional reflections below.
Strangely, on the one hand, it might make it seem as if sophisticated regulatory intervention is now unwarranted. Plus, the shadow of government regulation has generally acted to accelerate platform-led policy progress - a reminder that these firms are vulnerable to both market and regulatory interventions alike.
On the other hand, if the market share of Big Tech firms is diminishing and they are losing bargaining power, we may need to answer why they should even be regulated at all.
So, does a stock market collapse actually help to embolden regulators?
Imagining a world without news stories popping up in your Facebook feed is probably more palatable than a world without quality independent journalism you can surf online.
Nonetheless, the state’s power in an increasingly digital economy has been uncertain and tentative, allowing exploitative business models to thrive in the haze of regulatory lag.
A recent article in global news platform Semafor was able to disclose the value of deals between Meta and the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post - $21M, $18.5M and $14M respectively. At a TVO.org event hosted by the University of Toronto, a former co-owner of the Toronto Star revealed that a condition of engaging in these payments is not discussing them.
Regardless of big tech’s stock price or the financial terms of these deals, there’s no guarantee that the move would automatically boost the coffers of legacy media outlets - citizens may be prompted to start investing in an Apple News subscription instead of directly subscribing to a newspaper, choose to invest in reader-supported Substacks, or invest their attention and money in no alternative at all.
Newspapers didn’t strike financial deals with Hot or Not, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Friendster, MySpace or TUMBLR in the past because these platforms did not destabilise their business model. As the prevalence of Facebook has grown, so has the awareness of how their ability to showcase news stories for free cannibalises journalism amid a shifting advertising environment. But consumers are starting to shift, too - at the moment, it seems that social media enthusiasts have a few more choices than they had before and there seems to be more enthusiasm for migrating to other, less popular platforms like the decentralised Mastodon. Post.News, a somewhat recently-launched alternative to Twitter, promises that any news article accessed through the site will be compensated with a micropayment and Hive Social attempts to capture the best features of social media. Even instant messaging has been changing, with more people choosing encrypted options like Telegraph (which was created with a view to challenging the primary of WhatsApp) or Signal (which has been surging in popularity) over Meta-owned WhatsApp - signalling a clear preference for higher privacy standards and perhaps a distaste for the pervasive and privacy invasive advertising that has come to characterise contemporary social media use.
If and as the bargaining power of the largest technology firms continues to erode, the signatories of secretive agreements with Big Tech in lieu of legislation are likely to be asked to account for their decision.