Google Doesn’t Want to Pay Websites for Content, so It’s Blocking News in Canada

Google Doesn’t Want to Pay Websites for Content, so It’s Blocking News in Canada

Google is following the Facebook playbook and threatening to cut off access to news in Canada unless lawmakers agree to gut legislation aimed at making tech companies pay publishers for their content.

This week, the tech giant began temporarily limiting access to news results in tests affecting around 4% of randomly selected users in Canada. Google’s self-imposed partial news blackout will last for five weeks and impact both web Search and the Discover feature on Android devices, according to CBC. A Google spokesperson confirmed those tests in a an email sent to Gizmodo.

“We’re briefly testing potential product responses to Bill C-18 that impact a very small percentage of Canadian users,” the spokesperson said. “We run thousands of tests each year to assess any potential changes to Search.”

The abrasive move comes in direct response to an online news bill called C-18 currently being debated by members of the Canadian parliament.

Introduced last spring, that bill would require Google, Facebook, and other internet companies to pay news publishers when they reproduce their content. Modelled after similar Australian legislation, the bill would open companies like Google up to binding arbitration if they refuse to pay publishers. Supporters of the effort, like Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, say it would provide fair compensation to a news industry currently “in crisis.” Google, on the other hand, says the bill amounts to a “link tax.”

“We’ve been fully transparent about our concern that C-18 is overly broad and, if unchanged, could impact products Canadians use and rely on every day,” the Google spokesperson added. “We remain committed to supporting a sustainable future for news in Canada and offering solutions that fix Bill C-18.”

Google Canada Vice President Vice President and Country Managing Director Sabrina Geremia expanded on the company’s position in a blog post last year, claiming the bill could fundamentally alter the way Canadians access the internet.

“The ability to link freely between websites is fundamental to how the internet works,” Google Canada Vice President Vice President and Country Managing Director Sabrina Geremia said following news of the bill last year. “Canadians expect that when they search for information, they will have access to ALL the content the internet has to offer. Requiring payment for links risks limiting Canadians’ access to the information they depend on.”

The legislation could end up costing Google, a trillion dollar company, millions. A price estimate report released last fall by Canada’s Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated Google and Facebook would wind up paying around CA$329.2 (or roughly $242.99 USD ($337)) to news publishers per year. Those funds, according to the report, would cover around 30% of publishers’ overall editorial costs. Google’s search revenues raked in $US42.60 ($59) billion in the fourth quarter alone last year.

Still, Canadian lawmakers don’t seem to be ready to back down just yet. In a statement sent to The Wall Street Journal, a spokesperson for Rodriguez said Canadian lawmakers were committed to pressuring Google to provide greater transparency and accountability.

Following Facebook’s model

Meta flexed its muscle last year and warned Canadian officials it could stop the sharing of news links in Canada (as it did in Australia a year prior) if C-18 passed as currently written. In a blog post, Meta said the bill “misrepresents the relationship between platforms and news publishers,” and inaccurately assumes Meta unfairly benefits off the backs of poorly paid news hounds. Moreover, the company said posts to news articles make up less than 3% of what users see in their Facebook feeds. With more than 2 billion daily active users worldwide though, that 3% figure can still account for mountains of news.

All this political jockeying from Google and Meta was really made possible by Meta, then known as Facebook, calling Australia’s bluff in 2021 over disagreements with similar legislation forcing tech firms to pay news publishers. Facebook held firm and ended up pulling the plug on news sharing in the country leaving an estimated 17 million users scrambling to figure out what just happened. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg accused the company of “endangered public safety” during that time by limiting news access amid a pandemic. Facebook eventually reversed course after striking a more favourable agreement with the Canadian government

It’s still somewhat unclear how far Google’s willing to take its fight in Canada. Like Meta, Google previously threatened to cut Australian off from search but never ended up following through. Canadian officials, for now at least, seem willing to press on with the fight. In a statement, Rodriguez, Canada’s Heritage Minister said he was “disappointed” by Google’s decision to follow Facebook’s lead but said Canadians “won’t be intimidated.”

“All we’re asking the tech giants to do is compensate journalists when they use their work,” a spokesperson for Rodriguez told The Wall Street Journal. “Tech giants need to be more transparent and accountable to Canadians.”