This file photo taken on October 1, 2019 shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet.

This file photo taken on October 1, 2019 shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet.

(Photo: Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images)

Google to Block Local News Articles in Canada Over Law Targeting Big Tech

The move comes one week after Meta made the same threat following the passage of a law that policy experts say is an inadequate response to the crisis of underfunded journalism.

Google announced Thursday that it will block local news content from search results in Canada once a new law requiring it and Meta to pay media outlets for linking to articles goes into effect in about six months.

Meta said last week that it will pull journalistic content from Facebook and Instagram in Canada over the same law, known as Bill C-18 and the Online News Act.

"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," Kent Walker, president of global affairs at Google and Alphabet, the search engine's parent company, wrote in a blog post on Thursday.

"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," Walker added.

Canadian lawmakers enacted the Online News Act last Thursday. The Department of Canadian Heritage said in a statement that "digital platforms benefit from sharing news content on their platforms, both directly (advertising near news) and indirectly (user engagement, data refinement, subsequent targeted advertising)."

"This legislation requires dominant platforms to compensate Canadian news businesses fairly for their content by addressing the bargaining imbalance between the two parties," said the department.

Just hours after Bill C-18 was approved, Meta announced that "news availability will be ended on Facebook and Instagram for all users in Canada" before the law takes effect.

Citing the forest fires burning across large swaths of Canada, Tim Karr, director of strategy and communications at Free Press, noted last week that having access to local news can be "a matter of life or death" and condemned Meta's decision.

But Karr, who is critical of legislation like the Online News Act, told Common Dreams that while Canadian lawmakers may be patting themselves on the back and receiving praise in the mainstream press for passing the new law, "it does very little to actually get at the root of the problem of the crisis in journalism."

Since the advent of the internet ushered in a shift from print to online news, newspapers have been starved of advertising revenue, and that has fueled an unaddressed worldwide crisis of insufficient funding for journalism.

A coalition opposed to Big Tech's "predatory surveillance advertising" previously lamented that Meta and Google's "monopoly power and data harvesting practices have given them an unfair advantage, allowing them to dominate the digital advertising market, siphoning up revenue that once kept local newspapers afloat." The result is that "while Big Tech CEOs get richer, journalists get laid off."

As Nitish Pahwa explained Thursday in Slate:

At first glance, when Facebook or Google displays a news article, whether on a specialized feed or a search-results index, that seems good for the news outlet; the platforms are helping it get information to more eyeballs. But it's valuable for the website only if a user then clicks on the article and navigates the page in question, which hosts the ads the outlet was paid to feature. If users don't click—and most users don't—Google and Facebook get to keep the users' eyeballs, and the advertising revenue that comes from that engagement. Over time, because they've come to rely on Facebook or Google for their news, users become less likely to navigate a media publisher's site organically.

According to the Department of Canadian Heritage: "Between 2008 and 2020, overall revenue for broadcast television, radio, newspapers, and magazines fell by nearly $6 billion. At least one-third of Canadian journalism jobs disappeared between 2010 and 2016. Since 2008, 474 news media outlets have closed in 335 communities across Canada."

Canada's Online News Act builds on Australia's News Media Bargaining Code, which requires Google, Meta, and other digital platforms to ink commercial deals to pay Australian news publishers for content that is shared and repurposed on their sites. When the latter law went into effect in early 2021, Facebook—which changed its parent company name to Meta later that year—initially imposed a blackout on the country's news outlets.

Australian lawmakers quickly tweaked the law, and within a week, the tech giant had reversed course. According to a December report from the Australian government, Meta and Google have negotiated more than 30 deals with the nation's news outlets.

It remains to be seen whether such agreements will be reached in Canada. Lisa Hepfner, a former journalist and current Liberal Party MP representing Hamilton Mountain, Ontario, said this week in an interview with CBC News that the federal government cannot "cave" to Big Tech's "intimidation tactics."

"We can't let Facebook and Google rule the country," Hepfner said. "We can't let them decide what they will and will not contribute to. We have to decide that news is important to our democracy, and we will stand strong and we will defend it."

Instead of commending Canadian lawmakers, critics like Karr and professor Michael Geist, the Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, contend that they "have made an epic miscalculation."

According to Pahwa:

The circumstances that pushed Facebook to iron out agreements with Australia in early 2021 were very different.

"The Australian experience took place in a different time, when news might have been viewed as a bit more valuable by the platforms—when platforms were a bit more flush in cash, weren't laying thousands of their workers off, and weren't inclined to risk actually blocking news sharing," Geist told me. Fast-forward to mid-2023, however, and Facebook has much different priorities: cost cutting, layoffs, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and returning account access to misinformation spreaders like [former U.S. President] Donald Trump and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. After the endless scandals of the past few years, many related to digital media's presence on Facebook, the company is increasingly okay with continuing to deprioritize news.

That's been hard on publishers, Slate included. It'll be even worse for Canadian news orgs, which will soon lack any access to Facebook referrals. "I think a lot of people have stopped getting their news from Facebook because it's been choking off access to news for a long time," said Jesse Brown, publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadaland, an independent media network. "I fully believe Facebook when they say they could just live without news. It doesn't earn them much money."

To "save public interest news and information," Karr told Common Dreams last week, lawmakers must create "a model that subsidizes the type of news production, local news in particular, accountability journalism, that has gone missing as a result of the implosion of the news industry."

It is no longer "economically viable for local newspapers to operate on the model that they've been operating on for the last century," Karr continued. "Unless we take a serious look at the shifting economics of news production and create legislation meant to address that, we're going to just be kind of bailing water out of a sinking ship." Advocates of bargaining bills, he added, "aren't really giving a great deal of thought to what the future of journalism requires."

The Department of Canadian Heritage asserted that its new law "will maintain a free and independent press with minimal government intervention."

But according to experts, there's no solving the journalism crisis without massive amounts of public funding.

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