Online news bill is flawed and won't help media outlets, Google tells MPs
Tech giant comes under fire from MPs over online survey
Google took its case against Canada's proposed Online News Act to a parliamentary committee Tuesday, warning MPs that the legislation is flawed and won't address the challenges faced by struggling Canadian news organizations.
Colin McKay, head of public policy and government relations for Google Canada, told members of the Canadian Heritage committee that while it supports a sustainable future for Canadian journalism, Bill C-18, the Online News Act — which would force online platforms to compensate Canadian news organizations for the use of their content — won't do what the government hopes it will do.
"In its current form, C-18 will make it harder for Canadians to find and share trusted and authoritative news online," McKay said. "It will also have, at best, unpredictable outcomes for the evolving Canadian news ecosystem."
McKay said the legislation directs platforms like Google to not give "undue preference" that could work to the disadvantage of any news business. He said it also offers a very broad definition of what constitutes an eligible news operation and doesn't require such operations to adhere to "basic journalistic standards."
"This will lead to the proliferation of misinformation and clickbait," said McKay. "Combined with the 'undue preference' provision, this means Canadians could be served foreign propaganda outlets alongside reporting from Le Devoir or the Globe and Mail."
McKay argued in favour of voluntary contracts to compensate media outlets for content distributed online, like the ones it has reached with Le Devoir and dozens of other news organizations across Canada. But he refused to reveal details of any of those deals, saying they're subject to non-disclosure agreements.
Google found no support for its position among the other organizations that appeared before the committee Tuesday.
While those five other organizations offered the committee suggestions to improve the legislation, they generally supported Bill C-18 and said it would help Canadian news organizations.
Bill C-18, introduced by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez in April, seeks to throw a lifeline to foundering Canadian news organizations that have seen once lucrative advertising revenue move to online news giants like Google and Facebook.
According to government data, Google and Facebook are between them getting 80 per cent of all online ad revenue in Canada — about $9.7 billion a year.
WATCH: Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez outlines online news bill
Meanwhile, thousands of jobs in journalism have disappeared, media outlets have closed and many Canadian communities have turned into news deserts with no local news coverage.
When introducing the bill in April, Rodriguez described the situation as a "market imbalance" allowing Google and Facebook to benefit from news content on their sites for free.
"News outlets and journalists must receive fair compensation for their work," he said. "It shouldn't be free."
Similar legislation has been adopted in Australia. Witnesses told the committee Tuesday that money has started to flow to Australian news organizations as a result.
While Google initially fought the Australian legislation, McKay said Tuesday the legislation is working.
"We spoke quite loudly about the need for a workable solution in Australia, which they have landed upon," he said.
MPs push back on poll
Last week, Google continued its fight against Bill C-18 by releasing a public opinion poll it commissioned from Abacus Data. After posing general questions about the bill, the poll outlined some of Google's concerns regarding the legislation and asked respondents whether they thought it should be amended.
McKay faced some pointed questions from a number of MPs about that poll Tuesday.
"You often present Google as a rampart against disinformation," said Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux.
"You have often said Bill C-18 will open the door to disinformation. This week, we all received the data from a poll that you commissioned from Abacus Data, in which some of the questions commissioned by Google leave me a bit perplexed as to that determination that you have to counter disinformation."
Champoux cited a question in the poll that suggested the bill gives the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) "unprecedented, sweeping new powers to regulate every aspect of the news industry."
"When you asked your question, did you clearly explain what the powers of the CRTC would be?" he asked. "Because if so, you are better than us because we still don't know what powers the CRTC will have exactly if C-18 is adopted.
"What question did you ask exactly to arrive at the conclusion that 70 per cent of people are worried about the inordinate powers the CRTC will have?"
Champoux also pointed to a section of the poll that suggested that Canadians would have to pay a cost if Bill C-18 is adopted.
New Democratic Party MP Peter Julian echoed Champoux's concerns.
"I was very disturbed by how Google approached that particular opinion poll," he said.
Representatives of media outlets who testified before the committee, including the Canadian Association of Broadcasters and the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association, described the challenges their organizations have faced and the importance of quality news coverage.
Several stressed the need for the legislation to help small-town and emerging news organizations that may have difficulty employing two journalists full-time.
Ben Scott is director of Reset, a public policy group that focuses on the intersection of technology and democracy. He recommended that the legislation prioritize fairness between large and small news organizations and require that any new revenue go to the production of journalism. He also called for more transparency or oversight on deals worked out between online platforms and media outlets.