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Google raises ‘serious’ concerns over bill to force platforms to pay for news

Click to play video: 'Canadian media group: Tech companies should pay for news'
Canadian media group: Tech companies should pay for news
A group of Canadian publishers is calling on the federal government to force tech giants, like Facebook and Google, to pay for news content on their platforms. Mercedes Stephenson breaks down News Media Canada's demands. – Oct 23, 2020

Google is raising “serious” concerns about a Liberal bill that seeks to require tech giants to pay media outlets in exchange for putting their news content online.

Bill C-18, which the government introduced in the spring, would create a framework within which “digital news intermediaries,” or major online platforms, must negotiate deals with eligible news media.

News organizations have largely hailed the bill, which is similar to a law passed in Australia last year, though some have raised concerns about the criteria used to determine which outlets are eligible.

Colin McKay, Google Canada’s head of public policy and government relations, told a House of Commons committee Tuesday that the bill as it is currently written could unintentionally elevate misinformation and propaganda.

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McKay said a provision in the bill that would keep platforms from giving “undue preference” to certain news outlets would prevent Google from elevating “trusted information sources” over lower-quality content.

In other countries, such as Germany, “bad actors” have “gamed and misused” similar provisions, he said, adding that the company plans to propose specific amendments to the committee.

McKay also argued that the structure of the bill serves to benefit larger organizations over smaller ones and could incentivize the production of clickbait, saying that Google’s understanding is that the number of links appearing on its search engine would affect compensation for news outlets.

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He insisted that the company shares the legislation’s goal to support “a sustainable future for journalism and the news” in Canada.

“We are here because we want to participate in a thorough conversation about the details of this legislation so it can move forward and be implemented in a way that achieves the public policy goals,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Newspapers want feds to even inequity with web giants'
Newspapers want feds to even inequity with web giants

Other witnesses representing news organizations told the committee the bill is an important step that could level the online playing field.

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They pointed to the Australian law and argued that a legal requirement for online companies to pay for journalism is long overdue.

“This is real money for real journalism,” said Ben Scott, director of Reset Media. “Laws like this are going to be made all across the world, and Canada, in my view, has an opportunity to lead and set a high standard that will deliver for the Canadian public.”

One of the sticking points for representatives of smaller outlets is the bill’s provision that media would only qualify to negotiate deals if they have at least two full-time journalists on staff.

It “puts us in a bit of an awkward spot,” said Dennis Merrell, executive director of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association, because something like half of his members would be unable to benefit.

But Kevin Desjardins, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, suggested the measure sets a “low bar” and could encourage the hiring of more journalists.

The bill contains a provision that would exempt tech giants if they already have deals with news businesses that satisfy certain criteria, including editorial independence.

McKay said Google is already party to 150 agreements with Canadian publishers, 90 per cent of which are “small, local or regional.”

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The bill would also strengthen the oversight of the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, allowing it to hear complaints from news businesses that argue they are unjustly disadvantaged by online platforms.

The regulator would be allowed to levy administrative monetary penalties for any contravention of the new law, and it would be required to hire an independent auditor to prepare an annual report on the impact of the measures on the “Canadian digital news marketplace.”

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