Rodriguez unclear on supports for newsrooms with Meta, Google blocking news

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez says his government will ensure newsrooms have resources 'beyond the existing funding programs' and tax credits.

Rodriguez unclear on supports for newsrooms with Meta, Google blocking news
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Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez was 'surprised' to learn Google would follow Meta's precedent to ban access to Canadian news in the country.

"Well, Meta, I always said it was complicated; Google, we still have conversations as recent as this morning," Rodriguez told CTV's Power Play on Thursday. 

"I'm a bit surprised by Google's reaction."

Earlier in the day, Google announced it would remove Canadian news links from Google News and Google Discover. However, users in the country will still be able to access non-Canadian content from publishers abroad.

The company informed Parliament of their decision, though it did not say precisely when it would remove access to the news. It will happen before the law comes into force. 

Bill C-18, the Online News Act, passed the Senate last week, with the Commons passing a motion to support most of the Senate amendments. It will go into effect by the end of the year. As a result, Google and Meta will remove Canadian news from their platforms and end existing deals with local publishers due to fundamental disagreements over the Act.

Since receiving royal assent last week, Bill C-18 will force both tech giants to pay media outlets for content repurposed on their platforms. They would have to pay 35% of news expenditures for hundreds of media outlets, including the state broadcaster CBC, Bell Media, and Postmedia.

The parent company to Bell reportedly axed 1,300 jobs earlier this month as a cost-cutting measure to "significantly adapt" how it delivers the news.

"The world has changed, and the same way we're adapting to platforms, well, the platforms also have to adapt to the new reality," Rodriguez said Tuesday in an interview.

"Around 500 newsrooms closed their doors across the country…and they will continue closing their doors. The status quo is not working because the money [goes] to the tech giants."

Should Google and Meta follow through on their censoring of Canadian news, Rodriguez said his government would ensure newsrooms have resources beyond the existing funding programs and tax credits.

Canadian taxpayers annually subsidize media at $595 million — in addition to the $1.2 billion comprising 70% of the state broadcaster's budget. 

"We have to make sure that newsrooms are open, that [journalists] can do their job, and [they] have the resources necessary," he said.

Since 2019, Parliament has financed outlets deemed "qualified" by the Canada Revenue Agency worth up to 25% of the annual payroll or $13,750 per newsroom employee. However, the media bailout program is set to expire on March 31, 2024.

While the conversation with Google remains ongoing — with some common ground reached — Rodriguez remained firmly opposed to their idle threats.

"We cannot have tech giants as powerful as they are…telling members of parliament and the government, 'This is what you're going to do,'" the minister said. "We can't accept that. We're a sovereign nation."

On June 22, Meta told Parliament it would comply with the law by removing news from its Facebook and Instagram platforms before it takes effect.

Google said it neared a similar decision as Bill C-18 came closer to passing, but an "11th-hour" meeting with Rodriguez resulted in the company delaying the decision. 

"They have a lot of questions, which is normal. And they want more certainty, more clarity, which from a business perspective is logical," he said.

"Quite often, that clarity comes at the end of the process, once the bill is adopted and you go into regulations."

At one point, Google called for lawmakers to consider alternative ways to support news, such as creating a journalist fund.

News Media Canada, which advocates for the domestic news industry, urged all stakeholders to "act in good faith" and engage in the regulatory process.

"We believe there is a viable path forward," said Paul Deegan, the group's president and CEO, in a statement.

While most outlets have praised the bill over its commitment to "enhance fairness" in the industry and bolster their dwindling revenues, not everyone is thrilled about their prospects.

"Everything about this bill is a disaster," said Jen Gerson of Calgary, co-founder of the online newsletter The Line. She called government meddling in the media a "poisonous thing" for news media integrity.

Jeff Elgie, CEO of Village Media, testified to senators that his business would cease if Meta and Google stopped linking news stories from his publication. He said that giving Bill C-18 royal assent presents "a much worse outcome" than not having tech giants surrender a portion of advertising revenues.

Prominent publishers also said they would lose millions should both companies block their content.

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law, called Bill C-18 "bad for everyone."

"I think it's bad for the company because its search features in Canada and Google News won't be as good," Geist told CTV National News on Thursday. 

"It's bad for Canadian news outlets who rely heavily on Google and Meta for referral traffic…and bad for the Canadian public because their access to search results won't be as good."

The internet law chair said the government also stands to lose from implementing this bill.

"The government made a big bet, seemingly just based on the notion that somehow this was all just a big bluff; I don't think it read the room," he said. "The free flow of information through linking [is] at risk."

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