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OTTAWA — Despite Google’s claims that the federal government should not have been caught off guard by its scathing assessment of Ottawa’s online news bill, federal sources say they were left “frustrated and disappointed” by a tech giant they believe has “zero” interest in being regulated.
“There’s games afoot,” a government source told the Star. “Their bottom line is their bottom line, but they don’t want to be regulated.”
The comments follow a blog post published Monday by Google Canada vice-president and managing director Sabrina Geremia, who claimed the bill would lower the quality of journalism online, contribute to the spread of misinformation, “break” Google’s search engine and give Canada’s telecommunications regulator “unprecedented influence” over what is considered news.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s office refuted those claims, accusing the tech company of “exaggerating” its concerns.
Google and the government say they’ve had constructive conversations about the bill, which is intended to level the playing field between big tech and Canada’s news industry.
Bill C-18, the Online News Act, would compel web giants like Facebook and Google to share some of the revenue they make from posting news content on their platforms with the media outlets that produce the stories.
(Media companies including Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star, have lobbied Ottawa to address how tech titans dominate the digital advertising market. Torstar also has a deal, along with 10 other publishers, to join Google’s News Showcase service.)
The standoff means Canada is getting a taste of the battles web giants have waged in other countries that have sought payment for news sharing. Google yanked its Google News service from Spain for seven years after that country sought a monthly licensing fee for publishers whose content was linked on the platform. Google also threatened to pull its search engine from Australia over its News Media Bargaining Code, upon which Canada’s legislation is based.
It’s now clear that Google is saying “one thing to (government) privately,” and “another thing” to media, lobbyists and stakeholders, another federal source said.
While Google has said the criticisms outlined in its blog post this week have already been raised with the government, federal sources told the Star that one of those concerns was “brand-new information,” first revealed at an invitation-only conference held in Montreal over the weekend.
The event, hosted by Newsgeist, operates under the Chatham House Rule, meaning participants are free to discuss ideas outside the conference but cannot reveal where the information came from.
It was at a handful of those sessions — bearing titles like “WTF is going on with the Digital News Act?” and “What’s the right way to get Google & Facebook to pay for news? (Something between charity and extortion)” — that sources said Google first mentioned the notion that the bill would infringe on its access to copyright limitations and exceptions.
At issue is a section of the bill that, Google says, means online platforms would have to pay for “an index, aggregation or ranking of news content,” which the tech company has dubbed a “link tax.” Such a requirement would “fundamentally break” the way search engines work, Google argues, because it would result in mandating payments for including links and brief snippets of news articles when people look up a topic.
“It literally strips us of fair dealing rights and requires us to pay for snippets and links in a way that we would otherwise not be required to pay,” said Jason Kee, public policy counsel for Google.
The federal government maintains no such “tax” exists within the legislation. One source told the Star that Google is “speculating that the worst possible outcome is what’s going to happen,” and is using that to “instill fear,” even though the legislation will evolve as it is debated and goes through regulatory processes.
Kee said while the Heritage Department has indicated the bill won’t interfere with linking news articles and how they are ranked on its search engine, Google has been left to interpret its specifics.
“The challenge that we have is that we’re basically having to look at the actual words of the legislation versus what (Rodriguez’s) intent is, and basically interpret it accordingly,” Kee said.
He added that the blog post was published now because the bill recently moved to second reading in the lower chamber.
“It seemed an opportune time for us to start also publicly articulating the concerns that we had already articulated to (the government) just to inform the public discourse around the bill, especially as MPs start debating it in the House,” Kee said. “We will still basically be engaged with the government … to essentially make this … a functional, workable regime.”
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