Google set to block online news

  • November 29, 2023

Barring a last-ditch Christmas miracle, Google Canada will whitewash Canadian news outlets from its search engine beginning Dec. 19, 180 days after Bill C-18, the Online News Act, became law.

The big-tech company informed the federal government it would sooner prohibit Canadian news than pay four per cent of its annual search revenue to Canadian media organizations. The Parliamentary Budget Officer projected this formula would manufacture a $329 million annual windfall for Canadian newsrooms, including $172 million from Google and $62 million from Facebook. But this envisioned revenue stream has evaporated with Meta (it outlawed Canadian news links starting in August) and seemingly Google, opting for content bans instead. 

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, told The Catholic Register in an email that if Google does not renege from its stance, “there will be no new deals, no new money and some existing deals may be terminated… (a) devastating impact to Canadian media.”

Paul Schratz, editor of The B.C. Catholic, stated, “losing search results on Google would be disappointing, but it’s important to keep things in perspective.”

“An authoritarian ideology is spreading across Canada and restricting open debate on all sorts of issues,” wrote Schratz. “We’ve already seen the lengths that governments will go to limit freedom of expression. Google is responding to those efforts to control online discourse, and journalism in particular, by refusing to play the game. As sorry as I am to see it happen, I understand it.”

Peter Stockland, Editor/Publisher of The Catholic Register, suggested Google’s likely move would perhaps cause more reporting obstacles than impeding readership. 

“I would put a capital X on worrying about Google’s move affecting us too much as far as driving readership goes,” said Stockland. “X (Twitter) is available for that purpose, as is LinkedIn, which are far better vehicles for reaching our demographic anyway.

Undue PreferenceIn a blog posting, Google offers a number of fixes to Bill C-18. (Photo from Google)

“I think the real twist of the tail will come in losing Google for research and fact-checking stories we report. The immediacy of being able to call up something reported elsewhere is baked into editorial processes now, and that’s going to require an adjustment. Maybe we’ll all need VPNs to make it look like we’re Googling from the U.S. or Kazakhstan. But it’s the price we’ll pay for a terrible piece of legislation written in panicked response to misguided lobbying by mainstream media dogs in the manger.”

News Media Canada, the lobbying arm of the country’s news media industry, which campaigned for Bill C-18, has since beseeched the government to formulate final regulations that would pacify Google’s trepidations enough to dissuade the company from following through on its plans.

Google raised many concerns in a letter responding to the Online News Act’s draft regulations released in September. One of the leading objections is that Bill C-18 has a “fundamentally flawed premise.” Google “does not appropriate news content” nor “earn or seek to earn meaningful revenue from news,” as “news queries accounted for less than two per cent of search queries in Canada (last year).”

Google also claimed the law erodes the rights of Canadian citizens.

“By establishing linking to news sites as the basis for payment, the Act fails to recognize that the public’s ability to freely find and share links to news content online is critical to free expression, access to information, press freedom and an informed citizenry.”

Even if the government offered a better deal for Google before Dec. 19, Geist said “the problems with the law may not be fixable solely through regulation.”

Geist wrote in his website blog that the $129-million boost to the Canadian Labour Journalism Tax Credit included in the government’s fall economic statement was “the first step to creating a bailout for its disastrous Bill C-18.” This new system, effective for labour costs incurred on or after Jan. 1 of this year, will enable eligible Canadian journalism institutions to now claim 35 per cent of journalist expenditures up to $85,000 per employee. This formula amounts to $29,750 per employee, a 116-per-cent increase from the $13,750 per-employee entitlement under the former system of 25 per cent of $55,000.

It is important to note that News Media Canada requested this exact increase of the Canadian Journalism Labour Tax Credit from 25 to 35 per cent in its pre-budget consultation document submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance in August. 

Publications across the country, many unprepared for Meta blocking news links over the summer, have already reported that Bill C-18 has hurt their ability to reach viewers, readers and listeners. It is widely presumed a Google ban will be worse. 

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