Google says it plans to remove Canadian news links from its search results and other major products once Canada’s hotly contested Online News Act takes effect in the coming months. The bold show of force comes less than one week after Meta announced it would cut off Canadian users’ access to news links on Facebook and Instagram to protest the law. Big Tech is engaged in a high-stakes game of tech policy chicken with the Canadian government. News organisations and millions of Canadian Internet users are caught in the middle of it.
Google’s decision to cut off access to Canadian news is a direct response to the recently passed Online News Act. That legislation would force Google and other internet companies like Meta to pay news publishers when they access and reproduce their content, as they do when a user posts a link to a news story. Supporters of the bill and other similar laws in California and Australia argue it’s necessary to serve as a form of digital reparations for news outlets crushed during the transition from print to digital media. Opponents like Google have called it an unworkable and unnecessary “link tax.”
Google previously appeared optimistic it could work with lawmakers to soften the law’s reach, but that optimism was nowhere to be found in its terse blog post published on Thursday. Google said it no longer believes Canadian lawmakers are willing to budge.
“The unprecedented decision to put a price on links…creates uncertainty for our products and exposes us to uncapped financial liability simply for facilitating Canadians’ access to news from Canadian publishers,” Google said. “We have been saying for over a year that this is the wrong approach to supporting journalism in Canada and may result in significant changes to our products.”
Google claims it repeatedly offered feedback and critiques of early versions of the bill to lawmakers and recommended solutions it believed would be palatable to both platforms and news publishers. The company said none of its recommendations or amendments were accepted.
Supporters of the bill, like Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, have held strong to the bill’s core approach, which he says is necessary to ensure tech giants negotiate fair and equitable deals with news organisations. Google maintains its current process of linking out news stories already brings in millions annually to news media through advertising revenues.
Google has been speaking out against the legislation publicly for months but it upped its pressure in February when it began temporarily limiting access to news results in tests affecting around 4% of randomly selected users in Canada. The limited five-week news blackout proved Google’s seriousness on the issue but it may have also had the unintended side effect of leading lawmakers to dig in their heels even further. Top officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have called out US internet companies for their “‘bullying tactics.”
“We’re disappointed it has come to this,” Google added. “We don’t take this decision or its impacts lightly and believe it’s important to be transparent with Canadian publishers and our users as early as possible.”
Google referred us to its blog post when asked for comment.
But Google and Meta aren’t the only ones opposed to efforts like the Online News Act. In an interview with Gizmodo, Internet Society President and Chief Executive Officer Andrew Sullivan said bills requiring so-called link taxes, while laudable in theory, are “in violation of the fundamental approach that the internet allows.”
If enacted as written, Sullivan said laws like Canada’s would force platforms to form numerous contracts with a huge number of media outlets and precisely keep track of which users are in which country. Meta or Google would face millions of dollars in fines for failing to comply with the act. That might not seem like much to two of the most valuable companies on Earth, but Sullivan said compromising with Canada’s law could lead to a snowballing effect of other laws all around the world. That scenario could be economically unstainable for platforms.
“The reason the internet has grown so much is because it allows a free interaction where people can share things according to their own wants and can consume according to their own wants,” Sullivan said. “If you are going to force everyone into a contractual relationship from end to end in that kind of environment, many people are just not going to take the agreement.”
The American Economic Liberties Project, which supports efforts to pressure platforms to compensate news publishers, accused Google and Meta and trying to blackmail lawmakers and encouraged officials to hold the line.
“Google and Meta don’t want to pay journalists for their work — and they are willing to blackmail governments that dare to hold them accountable,” AELP Research Manager and Editor Erik Peinert said in an emailed statement. “We encourage Canadian lawmakers to move forward in implementing the Online News Act and urge U.S. lawmakers to follow their lead by passing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.”
Google and Meta Vs Canada
Google’s statements Thursday come just days after Meta announced it would similarly cut off access to news links for Canadian users on Facebook and Instagram. Now, two of the internet’s foremost providers of information have drawn a clear line in the sand. The next question is who knows needs who more in the game between Big Tech and Canada and who will budge first?
The answer to that question may have profound consequences that stretch far beyond Canada. Lawmakers in California, Brazil, and US senators are all considering their own copycat laws that would similarly charge platforms for accessing news content. Google and Meta faced a similar dilemma in Australia several years ago. Meta actually called the government’s bluff in that case and cut off news access for nearly a week before lawmakers eventually caved and negotiated a more palpable form of the law for the platform.
Still, the Australia case paved the way for Canada to follow suit. Eventually, Google and Meta will have to draw a clear line in the sand in order to avoid potentially dozens of other laws taking effect and costing their bottom line. For now, it looks like Canada may be the legal battleground that decides the fate of new distribution on the internet.
In the short term Sullivan, of the Internet Society, told Gizmodo the real biggest loser here, ironically could be journalists and news organisations. If platforms continue to refuse to pay publishers and cut off access to search engines and social media sites already struggling news sites could be headed toward financial ruin
“It would be a better irony if as a result of this scheme to save news media in Canada, they actually accelerate the rate at which people stop looking at Canadian news,” Sullivan said. “That appears to be a possibility.”
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