Strengthening democracy by saving local journalism should be on the agenda when President Joe Biden visits Canada next month.
Biden is expected to make his first presidential visit to Canada in March and focus largely on trade issues.
This is an opportunity to clarify an odd move by the Biden administration’s trade ambassador, who in recent months took issue with a Canadian policy to help its news industry.
Biden should affirm his support for efforts to sustain the free press in democracies worldwide, and back home in Congress.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai expressed concerns about Canada’s policy, proposed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. It would enable news outlets to collectively bargain content agreements with dominant tech companies.
The USTR also played the spoiler when a similar policy was proposed in Australia in 2021.
I’m all for defending the interests of U.S. companies abroad. But in this case, the USTR is on the wrong side.
The Australia and Canada policies are paving the way for the U.S. and other democracies to level the playing field between news publishers and two tech giants, Google and Facebook parent Meta.
The policies are intended to address the power imbalance between dominant tech companies and news publishers trying to negotiate fair compensation for online use of their stories.
Is the Biden administration supportive of this growing, international, market-based approach to create sustainable revenue for publishers and support thousands of union jobs? Or is it prioritizing the concerns of Google and Meta, which would rather not have to negotiate and pay for the use of online news content?
These policies allow collective bargaining. They particularly benefit smaller, local and regional news outlets that don’t have the clout to negotiate on their own.
This approach was on the table in Congress, with bipartisan support for the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, when the USTR opposed it abroad.
Despite the trade office’s complaints, and bullying by Google and Facebook, Australia passed its news media bargaining code anyway in 2021. It turned out to be a resounding success, sustaining small and large news outlets and leading to a surge of newsroom hiring.
So it was disappointing that the USTR again took the tech giants’ side when Canada followed suit.
This is surprising given that the Biden administration is generally a strong supporter of the free press.
Overseas, the administration is spending hundreds of millions to support news outlets it considers important to democracy. Domestically, it’s suing tech giants for conduct that it believes is harming publishers.
Biden himself noted that “too many local newspapers have shuttered or downsized, in part due to the internet platforms’ dominance in advertising markets,” in his July 2021 executive order promoting economic competition.
More recently, the U.S. Department of Justice and eight states filed an antitrust lawsuit alleging that Google’s unfair business practices in the digital ad market are harming publishers.
The USTR appears out of step in opposing Canada’s efforts to do what Biden and leading members of Congress want to do here in the U.S.
I asked the agency for comment and didn’t hear back before deadline.
The News Media Alliance, a trade group representing around 2,000 publishers, asked the USTR in December to “refrain from taking positions that benefit one sector of the U.S. economy at the expense of others.”
“When our trade representatives are negotiating with other countries, and vocalizing our country’s position, they need to reflect the industries such as the free press as well as the lawmakers who support those industries,” Danielle Coffey, the alliance’s executive vice president, told me.
The USTR doesn’t appear to be slowing progress on Canada’s legislation, which cleared its House and is now being considered in its Senate. Passage could come before Parliament recesses in June, according to Paul Deegan, CEO of the News Media Canada trade group.
Deegan said Canadian policymakers are not “getting their backs up” but it’s an inconsistent message from their southern neighbor.
“If you’re the USTR and throwing sand in the gears on this or potentially throwing sand in the gears … you are essentially harming union jobs in Canada, that is, good union journalism jobs,” he said. “That would seem entirely inconsistent with the messages that you see out of the Biden administration which are very tough but appropriately tough on monopolists, and that’s what we’re dealing with here.”
As I said, Biden’s Canada visit is a perfect opportunity to clarify how he really feels about tech giants exploiting the local news industry.
Trudeau’s media bargaining proposal is consistent with the president’s support of fair competition, union jobs and the importance of saving the free press. Biden should support this approach and help get JCPA done at home.
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