Google Announces it Will Be Ending Support for Canadian News Links

It appears that government talks have failed. Now, Google has announced that it will be ending support for Canadian news links.

Over the weekend, we reported on last ditch efforts by the government to try and convince them to leave news links alone. The talks came after an increasing number of large media outlets started growing nervous about what is in store for them in a problem of their own making. That includes Bell Media, the Globe and Mail, and Le Devoir.

Predictably, those last ditch efforts to try and salvage the situation has started breaking down. Yesterday, we reported on Meta denying that they were even having talks in the first place. Meta also stated that they were moving forward with their plans to drop news links. To compound things, the government was talking about massive bailouts in the news sector in response to this increasingly dire situation. They admitted that all options were “on the table”. It raises the question: why make such announcements unless the government realized that maybe the platforms were serious about their announcements? So much for the governments insistence that this was all just a big fancy bluff.

Now, we are learning that Google is announcing that it will be ending support for Canadian news links. The announcement appears to be an indication that those last ditch effort talks have failed between the platforms and the government entirely. From Google’s announcement:

Bill C-18 has become law and remains unworkable. The Government has not given us reason to believe that the regulatory process will be able to resolve structural issues with the legislation. As a result, we have informed the Government that we have made the difficult decision that when the law takes effect we will be removing links to Canadian news from our Search, News, and Discover products and will no longer be able to operate Google News Showcase in Canada. Read our blog and consult our FAQ to learn more.

The Government of Canada has enacted a new law called Bill C-18 (the Online News Act), requiring two companies to pay for simply showing links to news, something that everyone else does for free. The unprecedented decision to put a price on links (a so-called “link tax”) creates uncertainty for our products and exposes us to uncapped financial liability simply for facilitating Canadians’ access to news from Canadian publishers. We have been saying for over a year that this is the wrong approach to supporting journalism in Canada and may result in significant changes to our products.

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, and that C-18 will also make it untenable for us to continue offering our Google News Showcase product in Canada.

We’re disappointed it has come to this. 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.

Immediately, what got our ears to perk up was the note about how links will be removed from Search as well as News. Immediately, our worry is that our whole domain on search is at risk as a result. So, we poured over Google’s FAQ and found the following:

Bill C-18 sets out criteria for “eligible news businesses” which will be interpreted and applied by a government agency.

Canadian news organizations affected by these changes will be determined based on the scope of the law and the implementing regulations. We expect our approach to be refined over time.

For those who are a little bit unsure what that means, this is in reference to Section 27 of the Online News Act which reads as follows (emphasis added to highlight our situation:

Eligible news businesses — designation

27 (1) At the request of a news business, the Commission must, by order, designate the business as eligible if it

(a) is a qualified Canadian journalism organization as defined in subsection 248(1) of the Income Tax Act, or is licensed by the Commission under paragraph 9(1)‍(b) of the Broadcasting Act as a campus station, community station or native station as those terms are defined in regulations made under that Act or other categories of licensees established by the Commission with a similar community mandate;

(b) produces news content of public interest that is primarily focused on matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes, and

(i) regularly employs two or more journalists in Canada, which journalists may include journalists who own or are a partner in the news business and journalists who do not deal at arm’s length with the business,

(ii) operates in Canada, including having content edited and designed in Canada,

(iii) produces news content that is not primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment, and

(iv) is either a member of a recognized journalistic association and follows the code of ethics of a recognized journalistic association or has its own code of ethics whose standards of professional conduct require adherence to the recognized processes and principles of the journalism profession, including fairness, independence and rigour in reporting news and handling sources; or

(c) operates an Indigenous news outlet in Canada and produces news content that includes matters of general interest, including coverage of matters relating to the rights of Indigenous peoples, including the right of self-government and treaty rights.

There’s actually two ways we are not eligible. There’s currently only one person writing the news here (me). The other thing is that if we hire journalists and expand our operations, we focus on a particular topic – specifically technology and digital rights. An argument can be made that we might also not qualify under 27(1)(b)(iv) as we aren’t a member of a recognized organization of journalists. So, that may be some extra insurance should Freezenet not be qualified under the other two examples. At any rate, you can imagine my reaction when I found out the site won’t qualify:

The entire journalism world might be burning around us and mass layoffs may be in store, but Freezenet will survive this nuclear strike. The only joy I am getting here is the fact that my career won’t be coming to a screeching halt in a few months time.

For pretty everyone else, however, their news operations are royally screwed. Our initial assessment was that this would mean that Google News would cease operating. As it turns out, the situation is, actually, much worse as news links will be removed from Google Search as well. This is a big critical escalation from what we were speculating because a considerably larger portion of traffic tends to come from normal search. It is, after all, the flag ship service of Google/Alphabet. Getting cut off from the largest website on the entire internet will invariably have consequences. Retrospectively, it does make sense from a legal standpoint that Google had to do this as well since the law doesn’t distinguish between types of service.

Another critical aspect is the fact that this also imperils the existing deals inked between Google and publishers. These “deals” were made with the idea that news links would continue in Canada. Now, Google is faced with the fact that they are paying $250 million to publishers for no reasons. There will be no more news links on their products, so what’s the point of continuing with such deals when neither Google nor its users gets anything out of it? There’s a huge incentive for Google to abandon those agreements altogether at this point.

All of this was entirely avoidable. The government had warnings from both the platforms and independent experts alike. They could access the data to confirm what critics were saying all along. The government had warnings throughout the House of Commons and Senate levels. They have received numerous messages from the public. What’s more, they could have consulted with their own technology experts to get a clear assessment of how the internet really works.

They did none of that.

Instead, they chose to believe that all those warnings were lies, misinformation, disinformation, or pushed by people who were somehow “on the take” by the big platforms in a grand conspiracy to delay or stop the bill altogether. They chose to believe the lies that the platforms are “stealing” content from publishers and profiting off of it afterwards. The government took the talking points of lobbyists wholesale. The government demonized the smaller publishers as “not news“. There was an excessive reliance on cherry picked data to try and bolster the false talking point that platforms depend exclusively on news content. Most critically, the government chose to ignore the consequences of their own actions by moving forward with such a terrible bill, believing that if the platforms capitulated in Australia, then they will just magically capitulate here too with no context of the situation in both countries.

Now, all of Canada will pay the price of the governments belligerence on this. The news blocks will tear through the entire news sector, causing absolute havoc and creating what is likely a news media crisis in this country. It’s the Spain situation all over again. All Canadian publishers can do now is just brace themselves. The car they are on is about to go over the edge of the cliff and seemingly nothing is going to stop it now.

(Via @JesseBrown)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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