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Opinion: Will Canadians shift news habits when Bill C-18 takes effect?

Polling by Research Co. and Glacier Media suggests the consequences of the Online News Act could convince Canadians to change up how and where they find their news
At this stage, Canadians are divided on the federal government’s Online News Act

For the past couple of weeks, talk in Ottawa has focused on Bill C-18, also known as the Online News Act. 

When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about this piece of legislation last week, just over two in five (41 per cent) claimed to be following news stories related to it “very closely” or “moderately closely.”

Bill C-18 seeks to compel internet companies such as Meta and Google to negotiate deals and ultimately pay Canadian media companies for the content they preview and link to on their platforms. The reaction from the tech companies has not been subdued. Meta stated that news organizations benefit from “free marketing” on its platforms, and Google branded the piece of legislation as a “link tax.”

The government has relied upon two key messages to discuss Bill C-18. First it was touted as a way to save local media outlets by injecting cash into depleted newsrooms. More recently, the legislation has been hyped as a way to stand up for Canadians against bullying and intimidation from foreign-based corporations.

At this stage, and still months away from implementation, Canadians are divided on the federal government’s proposal: 43 per cent support Bill C-18, 35 per cent oppose it and 23 per cent are undecided.

Favourability towards Bill C-18 is highest in Ontario (46 per cent), followed by British Columbia (43 per cent), Quebec (also 43 per cent), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (also 43 per cent), Atlantic Canada (41 per cent) and Alberta (32 per cent). With a high level of undecideds, it is not a surprise to see the proposed legislation below the desired 50-per-cent threshold in all regions.

As the war of words between government officials and company lobbyists continues, the possibility of an internet experience where Canadians are unable to access local stories on news aggregators is real. 

Across the country, only 10 per cent of Canadians say they never access news online (on a smartphone, computer or tablet) during the course of a regular week. The proportion of Canadians who avoid news content is larger for three other prospective outlets: Television (18 per cent), radio (25 per cent) and print (44 per cent).

Daily news consumption maintains some generational quirks, with 56 per cent of Canadians aged 55 and over tuning in to television for information every day, compared to just 28 per cent of those aged 35 to 54 and 19 per cent of those aged 18 to 34. This serves to explain why reverse mortgage ads are so ubiquitous on television newscasts.

Similar proportions of Canadians aged 35 to 54 (51 per cent) and aged 55 and over (49 per cent) seek online news every day. The proportion drops to 37 per cent among the youngest adults.

An important aspect to analyze is how Canadians seek news content. The three most-popular ways to get information for those who go online at least four days a week are accessing specific stories through a news aggregator such as Google News (42 per cent), through a search engine, seeking information about a specific event (38 per cent) and clicking on a social media link (35 per cent). Fewer users type the URL of a specific website (28 per cent), read through newsletters they have subscribed to (21 per cent) or listen to podcasts (15 per cent) seven days a week.

Bill C-18 has the potential to restrict content that Canadians can find online. Heavy online news consumers in Canada rely primarily on aggregators, search engines and social media links. All of them are under threat if the technology companies manage to restrict access to their platforms. 

When Canadians are asked what they plan to do if Bill C-18 severely hinders their online experience, at least two in five say they would try a different search engine (43 per cent) or access news on television (40 per cent). Fewer would try a different news aggregator (29 per cent), bookmark news websites (28 per cent), access news on the radio (also 28 per cent) or access news in a print publication (18 per cent).

There will be more weeks of wrangling before the guidelines of Bill C-18 are in place. At this stage, as has been the case with everything related to online content in this century, the public is taking a wait-and-see approach. There is some willingness to alter existing habits if current access to news about Canada is ultimately limited. Still, Canadians are not looking at the government’s plan in an overwhelmingly positive light. The previous and current approaches to sell Bill C-18 – pledging assistance to local media outlets and collecting money from abusive technology corporations – have not yielded majority support. 

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted on July 4-5 among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.