Google Canada has told senators that it would be reasonable to reconsider whether it shares links to news sites if the government’s online news bill becomes law, but it is not promising to block them.
Richard Gingras, the vice-president of the company’s news division, told a Senate committee Wednesday that Google has shared its concerns with the legislation for over a year.
Bill C-18 would require tech giants to pay Canadian media companies for linking to or otherwise repurposing their content online.
But Gingras said those concerns have not been considered and that recent amendments to the bill have made things worse in some cases.
Sen. Paula Simons called Gingras’s comments “rather conciliatory,” in light of the test it ran earlier this year.
Back in February, Google Canada ran a five-week test in which it limited access to news content for around four per cent of its Canadian users.
Critics called that a bully tactic at the time, and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters said it’s proof that global digital giants did not intend to play fair.
Gingras said the company hasn’t made a final decision on whether it will limit journalism links for Canadian users going forward. When Sen. Donna Dasko asked what the company will do if the bill passes in its current form, he said he does not have certainty.
“Do we need to assess how we use links?” he said. “Do we need to assess whether it is logical for us to continue to provide a service like Google News, which earns us no revenue, yet drives significant traffic to publishers?”
Simons also took issue with Google’s concern that the bill does not create journalistic standards, and questioned whether the company wanted leeway to govern that itself or if it wanted the government to do so.
Gingras said he doesn’t think it’s up to the government, “or anyone, to decide exactly what journalism is.”
“The point we were trying to make, and will continue to make, is that the underlying precept of the bill was to drive support for the quality development of journalism for local communities across Canada,” he said, arguing the bill will not do that because the definition of eligible businesses is too broad.
The Senate communications committee also heard from representatives for Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, which made the case that news is a tiny fraction of its business.
The company estimates that people clicked on publishers’ links more than 1.9 billion times in the last year from Facebook feeds, which it says is worth an estimated $230 million.
“It is publishers that benefit from being on our platforms, not the reverse,” said Rachel Curran, Meta Canada’s head of public policy.
She said posts linking to news articles are less than three per cent of what people see in their Facebook feeds, and more than 90 per cent of views on news publishers’ articles are on links posted by the publishers themselves.
Curran said if the bill passes, Meta has no choice but to comply with it “by ending the availability of news content in Canada.”
“We don’t lose any revenue, or very little revenue, if news content is substituted by something else,” she said.
Google said it takes issue with provisions it says override copyright allowances by putting a price on links.
Gingras said if the company has to pay publishers for linking to their sites, it would lose money with each click, which would create an unreasonable financial liability for Google.
He also said advertisers are not particularly interested in news searches, and he, too, argued the company is willing to do more to support news than it earns.
“News queries to Google on Google search are less than two per cent of overall queries,” he said.
“The amount of revenue that we earn directly from news on our products is even less than that.”
Google is asking for an exemption to provisions of the law, saying that would allow it to negotiate voluntary funding agreements with publishers.
Curran argued that Facebook has a very different relationship with news publishers than Google because it does not aggregate their content, and Meta is asking for an amendment to be scoped out of the bill.