On his popular podcast Real Talk, host Ryan Jespersen recently asked me if I thought the federal government should back down from its standoff with Google and Meta.
“Absolutely not!” I said. “Ottawa needs to double down.”
Big Tech is trying to crush Canada’s efforts to sustain its news industry by making scary threats and attacking Canadians’ right to freely access local news.
But Canada must not back down.
The Online News Act, passed a few weeks ago, aims to divert $300 million per year from the approximately $10 billion in untaxed revenue Google and Meta make on ad sales in Canada. That money will be redistributed to sustain a healthy independent press — something that benefits all Canadians. But as they have done when facing government regulation in Australia, France, Spain and elsewhere, both companies retaliated by threatening to stop sharing news links from Canadian publishers on their platforms.
“Canada needs to have a strong, free and independent press,” Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said a couple of weeks ago when discussing the legislation. “It’s fundamental to our democracy.”
Then last week, Big Tech began meting out punishment. Google announced it was withholding its new artificial-intelligence chatbot from Canada. Meta began running ads opposing the law and explaining why it shouldn’t have to pay.
Sandy Garossino, a noted columnist and podcaster with Canada’s National Observer, has called their tactics “mob-like.”
“What the hell kind of people act this way?” she asks in her recent column. “‘Nice little newspaper you’ve got there — be a shame if something happened to it.’
“It’s not like they’re strapped for cash,” she points out. “In 2022, they generated combined global earnings of some US$400 billion. That’s more than half a trillion in Canadian dollars, thank you very much.” Plus, she notes, they paid no taxes on their Canadian earnings.
The threats seem to be working. A couple of weeks ago, the heritage minister appeared to soften his stance. That worried me coming so soon after Meta and Google’s threats. When I read about it, I had to put my head in my hands and take three deep breaths.
Media commentator Michael Geist wrote a post that sums up the revisions, which he called, “Caving in on Bill C-18 Government Outlines Planned Regulations that Signal Willingness to Cast Aside Core Principles of the Online News Act.
What rankles me about Rodriguez’s yielding even slightly is that it’s way too early in the process for Canada to give in on any points. This could be easily misread as Ottawa relinquishing precious power in a grossly uneven struggle.
Big Tech can seem almighty. But it’s possible to push back.
In 2020, Australia stood up to Google and Meta with legislation that forced the tech giants to pay for news. And here’s what happened: threats, bullying and, eventually, capitulation.
Australia hung tight. According to those working on the legislation, the issue was competition — Australia’s news industry should have been compensated for helping Google and Facebook attract eyeballs.
“Google and Facebook did not leave,” Australia’s communications minister, Paul Fletcher, told Wired Magazine. “They paid up, striking deals with news organizations to pay for the content they display on their sites for the first time.”
This has resulted in millions of dollars for Australia’s news industry across the spectrum from Rupert Murdoch’s corporate empire to independent news sites. Not all publications seem to have benefited from the deals, however some have had as much as 30 per cent of their newsroom costs paid for by the platforms, according to news reports..
Tech companies like Google can’t be trusted to act in the best interests of the news industry or democracy, as history has already shown us. That’s why governments must step in. The need for reliable daily news and intensive investigative reporting has never been greater.
Gathering quality news is expensive. It takes thousands of news reporters to provide us with the information we need as a nation to navigate threats to climate stability, public health and democracy. Ottawa is right to ask the tech giants to step up more. Canada is not alone in demanding this.
As my colleague Sandy wrote: “Make no mistake, this attack is a proxy fight by these tech giants. A very similar bill, the California Journalism Preservation Act, is making its progress toward passage in that state with bipartisan support. It’s facing similar threats, no doubt because legislatures everywhere will do the same. In other words, the world is watching how we respond.”
This is an important moment in an international fight. This is Canada’s moment. This is our moment. Join me in standing strong for democracy and independent journalism in Canada.