By Siddharth Pai
Last week, Google and the government of Canada “reached a deal”. The fact that a sovereign government must “reach a deal” when trying to enforce a properly enacted law on a company doing business within its borders is hard to imagine, but is unfortunately, this is the situation in the world today. Big Tech can strongarm governments, not the other way around.
Let me explain. First, the law. Canada has recently passed an Online News Act which comes into force on December 19. According to Wikipedia “The Online News Act, known commonly as Bill C-18, is a Canadian federal statute. Introduced in the 44th Canadian Parliament, passed by the Senate on June 15, 2023, and receiving royal assent on June 22, 2023, the act will implement a framework under which digital news intermediaries (including search engines and social networking services) that hold an asymmetric position must bargain with online news publishers to compensate them for the act of reproducing or facilitating access to their content via their platforms.”
Simply stated, Google and Meta (Facebook) must pay news outlets (like this paper) a fairly determined sum of money to carry the outlet’s news. As of today, the search engine and Meta simply put up links to these outlets—and appropriate a precis/summary using generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools that “strengthen your search” so that you can get an overview about the news article and related topics. (If you haven’t done so already, see if you can incorporate Google’s AI tool into your web browser. Its ability to provide a rather precise summary is quite something).
Meta began throttling Canadian news content on Facebook and Instagram on August 1. Users trying to access news on these Meta properties see messages saying they can’t see the content in Canada or can’t see any posts. For its part, Google published the following on its website on June 29 regarding the matter: “The Government of Canada has enacted a new law called Bill C-18 (the Online News Act), requiring two companies to pay for simply showing links to news, something that everyone else does for free. The unprecedented decision to put a price on links (a so-called “link tax”) creates uncertainty for our products and exposes us to uncapped financial liability simply for facilitating Canadians’ access to news from Canadian publishers. We have been saying for over a year that this is the wrong approach to supporting journalism in Canada and may result in significant changes to our products. We have now informed the Government that when the law takes effect, we unfortunately will have to remove links to Canadian news from our Search, News and Discover products in Canada, and that C-18 will also make it untenable for us to continue offering our Google News Showcase product in Canada. We’re disappointed it has come to this. We don’t take this decision or its impacts lightly and believe it’s important to be transparent with Canadian publishers and our users as early as possible.”
Early estimates indicated that Canadian news organisations—as a combined community—stood to earn around Canadian $329 million per annum (or US$248 million) from the arrangement mooted by the Canadian C-18 bill. Now, news is that Google has reached a “negotiated arrangement” with the Government of Canada and has agreed to
pay Canadian publishers around Canadian $100 million ($73.6 million) annually for the right to be able to feature these publishers’ content on its website.
To me, the pulling of Canadian news from these platforms is the equivalent of a diplomatic event. The fact that Google and Meta can do something like this beggars belief. These are supposed to be bastions of “free expression and free speech”. To me, this also means that they have now a duty to their users’ “right to free flow of information”, whatever it may in turn cost them. De-listing news produced by an entire country’s news outlets amounts to muzzling these organisations while also depriving Big Tech users their right to a free flow of information. The fact that this can be done to a first world country should give us pause.
If one is a bastion for “free access”, then one should also be a bastion of commercial fairness. After all, news outlets go to great lengths to investigate and report the news—after having careful editorial oversight to make sure that what they are reporting is in fact the truth. This costs money, which in the past, advertising revenues used to cover. Now that Big Tech has appropriated a large part of the advertising revenues of these outlets, in return it wants to carry their content for free. The intrinsic unfairness of this arrangement is plain to see, at least in my opinion.
But what is more striking is that Big Tech firms have now reached a level of power where they can flout government directives at will—or simply choose to shut off information from a part of the world. What happened to their users’ right to information? That is nowhere discussed or mooted in Google’s communiques and is ignored outright.
The fact that Big Tech will use its power to muzzle an entire country’s news is something that should make all governments take notice. I have been saying for a while that we need an international body to govern Big Tech. At the very least, a treaty, with most of the world’s countries as signatories, should exist that lays down basics of the law for what Big Tech organisations can and cannot do worldwide.
(The author is a technology consultant and venture capitalist)