Google Has 33 Days Left Before Needing to Decide to Pull the Plug on News in Canada

The Online News Act comes into force on December 19th. Google has to make an ultimate decision on whether to block news links or not.

We are now 33 days, or just over a month away before Google has to decide whether or not they want to allow news links on their platform. News organizations who seem to have a working knowledge of how the internet works have described the events unfolding as an “existential event“. What’s more, should Google make the obvious move and drop news links altogether, it would complete the failure of the Online News Act – Canada’s link tax law.

Facebook made a similar move at the beginning of August when it dropped news links altogether. Despite the screeching some supporters of the Act about how Facebook couldn’t possibly survive without news links and would cave within a week, Facebook, as per the predictions of both the platforms and the new laws critics, is doing perfectly fine. User engagement remained unchanged while the news publishers saw engagement on their Facebook pages collapse. News organizations, even those brain dead enough to still support the law, saw traffic on their websites plummet as a result.

Of course, the disaster that was unfolding as a direct result of the Online News Act wasn’t just in analytics numbers. There was also the shuttering of 3 newspapers in BC and the massive TVA layoffs in Quebec as well. As a result, there are already a number of victims of the Online News Act as a result.

Perhaps the scariest thing in all of this is the fact that Google is a much larger platform than Facebook. The damage already being felt after Facebook made their logical business decision is already being felt. If Google pulls the plug, the damaging affects of the Online News Act would end up being substantially worse. On top of that, you have two of the planets largest platforms no longer accepting links to news websites in Canada no longer handing out referral traffic as well, amounting to a sort of journalistic perfect storm if you will.

Now, whenever you have any sort of high profile negotiations, what often comes out of them is small tidbits here and there. Examples include union negotiations with the companies they work for. Whenever there is a dispute, you usually hear about where the negotiations are and how far along they are. So, for instance, are wages still a sticking point or are there benefits that are causing gridlock at the negotiating table? Are the two sides of the negotiations far apart on issues or are they talking and making progress on where they do or don’t agree? Usually, things like that come out of talks as a deadline approaches.

In the case of Google negotiating with the government, we’ve heard virtually nothing. The last thing we’ve heard was that, back in October, Google’s position has remained unchanged. As we noted back in September, Google had met with the government over 100 times. Despite that, Google noted at the time that they couldn’t even get an idea of what their obligations even are under the Act.

Those comments checks out because when the Senate hearings took place, then Heritage Minister, Pablo Rodriguez, seemed barely aware of his own surroundings, frustrating senators who were trying to get straight answers out of him. Rodriguez is far from the only government official who doesn’t really understand what they have gotten themselves into in this debate, either. So, when Google would later say that they still don’t know what their obligations even are under the Act after talking with the government, that’s hardly surprising.

While this kind of information is months old, even today, that is everything we know about how these so-called “talks” are going. We haven’t heard a thing since. There’s two possibilities going on here:

  1. Talks are continuing and the details are locked up tight to the point where nothing has been getting out.
  2. Talks are going nowhere and nothing has changed up to this point.

The former possibility I find extremely unlikely. After all, the government has gone shoulder to the wheel in politics here. Logic and common sense have been absent from the government side long before this was a bill making its way towards the Canadian senate. That aspect has never changed. For the government, nothing is off limits when it comes to scoring cheap political points. If they can use things like the Yellowknife wildfires to score cheap political points, then anything is fair game to them.

So, you would think that if progress is being made in these talks, the government would’ve said something. What’s more, the complicit Canadian mainstream media would champion those comments, parading them around as some sort of win in an apparent war on “Big Tech”. In this debate, the media is not only highly biased, but they don’t care that they have thrown journalistic integrity out of the window. Well, judging by the total lack of news on that front, you can easily guess what didn’t happen. As a result, I find the former possibility to be highly unlikely.

That leaves the latter possibility. To me, this is a very likely possibility. After all, we are talking about a government who really doesn’t know what they are doing. Google has been asking the government the most basic of questions like what their obligations even are under the Act and, at least in the past, couldn’t even get those answers from the government. Further, the government has been in full denial of the damaging consequences of their new law. All of this raises the possibility that Google is continuing to get a bunch of nonsense talking points from the government rather than clear indications of what they need to do should they make the unbelievable decision of actually going ahead with this.

To be clear, the chances of Google walking from the talks and pulling the plug on news is very high. Google knows they have countries like the UK, the US, and European countries chomping at the bit to ripping off Google on this front as well with their own link taxes. Is there money on the line for Google with respect to the Canadian link tax law? Sure. However, there is a huge amount of credibility on the line as well.

We’ve already seen this effect in Canada when one of the standard talking points by supporters is “but Australia!” In a nutshell, because Google made the mistake of going along with the Australian link tax law, then they would make the same mistake here. Indeed, at the time, the only thing I (and many others) could possibly think of when it comes to Google going along with the Australian model is the idea that Google saw an opportunity to basically all but permanently shut down any potential competitor to their main search engine. As we said back then, it was a really short-sighted decision because every other country is going to want their pound of flesh when other countries push similar laws.

Now, here we are, all these years later and that is exactly what is happening here. That mistake is coming back to bite Google here in Canada. It is also assuredly going to bite them in other countries as well. Folding here in Canada would mean that if Google would say they would drop news links in other countries, people would most definitely have good reason to not believe them. The reason why it’s very credible that Google would drop news links in Canada is because we’ve seen the Australian mistake come home to bite Google, so it’s no longer speculation that other countries are going to want to push link taxes – it’s already happening. So, the idea that the cost of doing business is going to skyrocket as a result of caving here is pretty much a sure thing.

Should Google actually make the right decision and drop news links here, it will, at minimum, give Google a bargaining chip elsewhere. It would lend more credibility to the idea that although Google went along with the Australian model, there are hard limits for the company and, at minimum, there needs to be reasonable limitations in similar bills in other countries or else Google is going to drop news links and allow similar laws to cause similar destruction in news sectors elsewhere. Yes, Google said “yes” in Australia, but Google also said “no” in Canada. Maybe we need to think more carefully about the law here in our own country instead of just assuming that Google will automatically concede. Definitely a better position for Google at the very least.

Google has to know all of this and that would weigh on their decision of what to do here in Canada. I don’t see any clever way for Google to take advantage of the situation like they possibly thought in Australia. So, ultimately, that’s why I think Google is very likely to decide to drop news links.

The Online News Act comes into force on December 19th, so if Google dilly dallies past that point, they open themselves up to fines as well. In my view, taking those fines would be completely unnecessary. They have the results of their earlier test. Google has seen the reports of what happened when Facebook made the decision to drop news links. I can’t possibly see how there would be any reason to hesitate and think things through outside of the government making some sort of compelling case (which is unlikely in my view). So, Google taking any sort of fine here for waiting past the deadline as well would be completely senseless to me. It would be wild for a platform to take a hefty fine for no real good reason.

For me, personally, it sucks being on the outside looking in. Like so many other news types, I’m basically waiting to see if my news writing career is over or not. There’s no recovery I see from Google dropping Freezenet altogether. We can live without Facebook, but Google is an entirely different matter. If that is surprising to you, then you don’t know modern day web development. Getting dropped from Google is, almost always, a death sentence for a website. I can hope that my site is small enough and is considered an exception to the law (it is, the question is whether Google knows this or not). I mean, the fact that I survived the Facebook news links apocalypse certainly gives me a lot of hope that I will be left alone, but there are no certainties here.

While there are some things we don’t know, we do know that December 19th isn’t exactly that far away now. So, when that day comes, we’ll probably get a lot of answers. Until then, we sit here and wait – with the addition of total radio silence to keep us company.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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