“It really surprises me that Google has decided that they would rather prevent Canadians from accessing news than actually paying journalists for the work they do. I think that’s a terrible mistake and I know that Canadians expect journalists to be well paid for the work they do.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waded into Bill C-18 and Google removing links to Canadian news articles in search results as part of a test for a small percentage of users yesterday with the quote cited above. At a press conference in Toronto, Trudeau went out of his way to volunteer that he is surprised by Google’s actions, which he thinks is a “terrible mistake.” If Trudeau was surprised, then he has not been paying attention, as the possibility of removing links to news articles in search results or social media has been an obvious consequence of a bill that mandates payments for links. But his surprise isn’t what is important or requires comment. What does is that Trudeau’s comments mislead on several critical issues with Bill C-18.
First, there are obviously a range of perspectives on Google’s actions. In my view, greater transparency is needed when search results are intentionally removed, but I support the underlying principle of opposing mandated payments for links and indexing, which represents an enormous threat to the free flow of information online. However, regardless of your view, it cannot reasonably be said that Google is preventing Canadians from accessing news. Google does not have the power to prevent anyone from accessing third party websites since the removal of links from search results does not remove or block the site itself nor prevent anyone from accessing it directly. Words matter. It is not just misleading to claim that Google is preventing Canadians from accessing news, it is dangerous. There are many countries that engage in content blocking or other measures to actually prevent access and the Prime Minister should not be conflating removal of search results with website blocking.
Second, Trudeau’s claim that Bill C-18 about payments to journalists isn’t well reflected in the bill itself. As a result of amendments at the Canadian Heritage committee, the definition of eligible news businesses was expanded to include hundreds of community, campus or indigenous broadcasters licensed by the CRTC. Unlike the standards established under the Income Tax Act which govern Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations (QCJO) and which feature multiple criteria to ensure that only organizations producing journalism are covered, Bill C-18 applies to broadcasters that may not face any requirements to produce news. In other words, the bill would require payments to hundreds of broadcasters without any actual journalism or original news content. That isn’t funding journalism or journalists. It is creating a subsidy program that only requires a CRTC-issued licence.
Third, Bill C-18 is not about payment for the reproduction of journalists’ work. It is about payment for links, indexing and any other mechanism that is seen to “facilitate access” to news. I’ve identified many concerns with the bill (including press independence concerns, potential violations of Canada’s international copyright obligations, harm to the competitiveness of independent media, and the prospect of trade retaliation by the United States), but none are more important than the harm to freedom of expression and the free flow of information online that arise from mandated payments for links.
That the government believes that Google and Facebook should pay hundreds of millions of dollars for links – as much as 35% of all news expenditures of virtually every television broadcaster, radio station, and news outlet in Canada according to the bill’s sponsor in the Senate – would not only render Canadian media entirely dependent on two foreign companies for their survival, but would create a framework that threatens the foundational frameworks for how information flows online, including the freedom to link to information and the benefits of indexing that information so that it can be more easily found. For more than 25 years, the world has benefited from these principles, but if Bill C-18 passes in its current form, our ability to find and share information will face a dizzying array of demands that threaten the entire information ecosystem.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, MPs, and Senators keep insisting that Canada won’t be intimidated by Google, but if there are any threats happening, they are coming from Bill C-18 and from a Prime Minister who is seeking to garner support for a bill that simply does not do what he says it does. The government presents Google and Facebook with a choice in Bill C-18: pay for links to Canadian news articles or stop linking to them. Stopping linking would obviously come at great cost to everyone: Google would face a loss of trust and heightened competition from other search engines that do not face Bill C-18 obligations, Canadian news sites would lose valuable referral traffic, and Canadians would experience a degraded version of services they rely upon. That Google is considering not linking despite those costs is consistent with the framework established in Bill C-18 and rightly takes a stand against the bill’s threat to the free flow of information online.