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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Google has made our online lives easier, but we may all be about to become a victim of its success

Publishers are upset that Google has out-distanced them in ad sales. That money used to go to them, and they want it back

Canadian PoliticsMedia

Google’s headquarters for European operations in Dublin, Ireland. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Google is so successful that it may be about to become a victim of its own popularity, and Canadians may all suffer as a result. One of its many free services might be going away soon because the Liberal government wants Google to start paying for the privilege of providing it.

If you want to know the best way to get to a store or a restaurant, you might plot your course on Google Maps, which does it so efficiently that it even takes into account the latest reported traffic delays. If you want to know when it closes, you may click on its name on the map. Up pops a window with not only that information, but also its rating, links to reviews, and even a link to its website. If you want to know the news, you might go on Google News. If you want to read a book, you may go on Google Books. If you want to know just about anything, you simply Google it.

Google has become such an integral part of our online lives that it has become a verb. To Google something has become synonymous with looking it up online. You don’t say you Bing something or Yahoo! it because if you have ever tried those search engines, you would know that their results are not nearly as swift or comprehensive.

You Google it because Google knows where everything is on the Internet. It has scoured it and indexed it at a great cost in bandwidth and hardware so that as soon as you type in your search, up pop the best possible responses, in order of popularity. Google provides these services free of charge, which of course means that we are the product and it benefits from knowing what we’re looking for, which helps it to sell targeted advertising.

Not everybody appreciates Google’s technological prowess, however. Politicians somehow claim it is a monopoly despite the obvious fact that it has competitors, however outclassed they might be. Newspaper publishers complain that readers go on Google when they’re looking for news and not directly to their websites. Mostly the publishers are upset that Google has gathered so much data on us that it has vastly out-distanced them in advertising sales. That money used to go to them, and they want it back.

Google News has become a bone of contention in countries around the world despite not running ads next to its search results. Still, publishers have complained that by posting links to their news stories, along with their headlines and a snippet of their content, Google is stealing from them. I know it sounds crazy to anyone who knows how the Internet works, but newspaper publishers have considerable power over public opinion and especially over politicians, and they have framed their relationship with Google as that of victim and robber.

Rupert Murdoch, who dominates the media in Australia, made it his mission for more than a decade to get Google and Facebook to pay him for the news in his newspapers, and he succeeded recently in that country. The fight has now come to Canada because publishers want a piece of that action. If the digital giants lose here, they may lose next in the US and the UK, and that could get expensive.

Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which passed third reading in Parliament last year and is currently before the Senate, would force online platforms like Google and Facebook to sign licensing agreements with Canadian news media and pay them in exchange for being allowed to post links to their articles. The cost to the digital giants has been estimated at $329 million a year.

Facebook has already balked at this, appearing before the Heritage Committee of Parliament late last year to counter the charges made by publishers that it is stealing their content. Facebook’s parent company Meta now says it will stop allowing its members to post links to Canadian news stories for their friends to see if the government requires it to pay for doing so.

It turns out that Google was practising to do the same thing it did in Spain for eight years after that country brought in a so-called “link tax” in 2014. When MPs heard that it was test-blocking some Canadian users, they summoned US Google executives from CEO Sundar Pichai on down to appear before them to explain what was going on, as if it wasn’t obvious.

They had to settle for Google’s top executives in Canada since those outside the country hardly need respond. They called them on the carpet last Monday—and then nothing. They couldn’t make the Internet work. They had to try again a few days later after they had figured it out.

By this time, the MPs were furious. When the witnesses from Google finally started answering questions, they weren’t being forthcoming enough, so the committee ordered them to be put under oath mid-hearing last Friday. Liberal MP Chris Bittle, who is a lawyer, was one of those most upset, calling it “disgusting” and adding that he had never before seen witnesses have to be sworn mid-testimony. “I don’t think you understand the gravity of this on a charge of perjury.” The hearings have taken on the appearance of an inquisition, including threats by Bittle of further legal action.

Bittle told a story about how he stopped on his way to Parliament to buy a car seat and used Google to help make his selection. Had Google blocked him from any news about car seat hazards, he demanded to know. “So you block stories on product safety putting children at risk?”

“We want to provide news to Canada,” insisted Sabrina Geremia, Google’s top executive in Canada. “Canadians want us to work together on a healthy news ecosystem that doesn’t have a cost on the news search.” The testing that Google was doing, she added, was to try to understand the potential impacts of Bill C-18. “We can’t assume that we’re going to be able to link in the same way that we have in the past.”

Geremia attempted several times to refer questions beyond her technical expertise to her colleague Jason Kee, who had also appeared to testify, but MPs wouldn’t allow it. “Putting a price on links is unprecedented,” she said.

Kee testified that Google wanted to assist Canadian journalism, but that by focusing on links Bill C-18 would favour “clickbait” and privilege larger corporations over smaller, local news outlets.

“We’re actually looking to incentivize long-form, investigative journalism that is thoughtful versus low-quality journalism.”

Google posted an “Open letter to Canadians” online just as the hearings began. It pointed out that the company has already signed agreements with more than 150 Canadian publications to pay them for content through its Google News Showcase. Its Google News Initiative, it added, also helps provide tools, training and funding to help support journalism innovation.

Its statement also outlined Google’s problems with Bill C-18 as written. “Bill C-18 puts a price on free links,” it said. “When you put a price on linking to certain information, you no longer have a free and open web.”

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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