Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized Google on Friday for blocking some Canadians’ access to news content in search results in response to Bill C-18, the proposed legislation that would force Google to share revenues with news publishers.
“It really surprises me that Google has decided that they’d rather prevent Canadians from accessing news than actually paying journalists for the work they do,” Trudeau said.
“I think that’s a terrible mistake and I know Canadians expect journalists to be well-paid for the work they do.”
Trudeau made the unprompted comments at the end of a press conference, without being asked about it. He told reporters there was “another issue that I just wanted to make mention of that is bothering me.”
Earlier this week, The Canadian Press reported that Google was blocking news stories from showing up in some people’s search results and in its “discover” feature on Android devices. The company said the tests affected fewer than four per cent of Canadian users and would last about five weeks. “We’re briefly testing potential product responses to Bill C-18 that impact a very small percentage of Canadian users,” a company spokesperson said.
Bill C-18, the Online News Act, would force Google and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, to share revenues with Canadian news publishers and broadcasters for the news articles that appear on the tech platforms. That revenue could fund nearly a third of news content creation in Canada. Postmedia, publisher of the National Post, is in favour of the legislation.
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Google could also soon face grilling directly from MPs. Liberal, Bloc and NDP MPs are calling for the House of Commons heritage committee to meet “at the earliest opportunity to summon leadership from Google to explain this damaging and reckless behavior.”
Chris Bittle, the parliamentary secretary to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said on Twitter the three parties “stand together in their concern over Google’s latest attempt to limit Canadians access to news. Canadians deserve answers from Google.”
Facebook has also previously threatened to pull news content from its platform in response to the bill, which would force Google and Facebook to negotiate commercial deals with Canadian publishers.
A spokesperson for Rodriguez said in an emailed statement it’s “disappointing to hear that Google seems to be borrowing from Facebook’s playbook. This didn’t work in Australia, and it won’t work here because Canadians won’t be intimidated.”
Canada is aiming to be second country in the world, after Australia, to pass news revenue-sharing legislation. Facebook briefly pulled news content from its platform in that country, while Google threatened to pull its search engine.
Google also ran tests affecting some Australian users’ access to news content before the Australian law took effect in March 2021.
NDP Heritage critic Peter Julian said in an interview the attempts to push back in Australia didn’t work. “The bill was passed and put into place. It didn’t have the impact that Big Tech was hoping for.”
Julian said the “intimidation tactic” will backfire for Google in Canada. He predicted it will “further the resolve of elected representatives to make sure this legislation is in place” and undermine the credibility of Big Tech among the public.
Paul Deegan, president of the publishers’ association News Media Canada, called for the government to pull advertising from Google.
He said the last year the Liberal government spent $8.7 million directly, and more indirectly, on advertising with Google. “We think there’s no more blunt instrument that the government has than the power of the spend…We think that they should be making sure that they’re supporting trusted sources of information.”
Bill C-18 is currently in second reading in the Senate, where Google is expected to appear at the transport and communications committee once it begins its study of the bill.
Sen. Leo Housakos, who chairs the committee, said he expects the Senate to send the bill to committee in the coming weeks.
Housakos said Google is a “private business” that has the right to “say we’re opting out of carrying Canadian journalists on our platform.” He noted Canadians can still access news content directly through news outlets’ own websites.
Sen. Paula Simons said the committee “will have very particular questions to ask them in the light of this news.”
Simons said it remains to be seen “who’s going to call whose bluff.”
“If Google is serious about pulling out the Canadian news market, that has huge potential risks for the Trudeau government, but that also has huge risks for Google,” she said.
“It’s hard to know how much of this is posturing and how much of this is political theater, and how much of this is just, they’re showing us what they could do. And then there will be negotiations and everybody will calm the heck down.”