Google Warns that Bill C-18 Could Fund Misinformation Campaigns

Bill C-18 could be used by state actors to redirect funds to their misinformation campaigns. This according to Google.

Bill C-18 is one of a series of disastrous bills meant to ruin the Internet in favour of large established corporations operating in Canada. We conducted our own analysis of the legislation and found that it was worse than originally feared. The legislation goes to great lengths to exclude any and all competition to the establishment from any and all payments. As Open Media points out, even the small local media outlets could find themselves significantly disadvantaged and potentially even locked out of receiving funds from the new scheme.

Of course, the scheme itself is a link tax. It mandates that social media platforms and aggregators must pay money for the privilege of sending traffic to their sites by linking to them. The system would basically allow the established media outlets to effectively freeload off of the success of a completely unrelated industry for the simple reason that the medias business models completely and utterly failed in light of the increasingly digital world.

The thing is, while some might say that Canada’s link tax is merely modelled off of Australia’s disastrous news bargaining code, it actually goes even further by insisting that payments must be made simply for mentioning a source – this over top of links and snippets. If anything, it is the most extreme link tax known in the entire world to date that we are aware of.

With scrutiny directed at the legislation, the media establishment decided to launch a massive misinformation campaign, trying to say that the legislation is only about “levelling the playing field” or “making large tech giants pay” for “reusing their material without permission”. All of this and more were lies of course. The massive campaign to lie to the public completely torpedoed any argument that the media is just publishing news about the link tax law. What’s more is that the media also began silencing criticisms of the legislation as well on top of it all.

One of the issues we’ve raised is just how anti-competitive the legislation is. As we earlier pointed out, language such as “a particular topic” would effectively shut out all the competition online. The smaller players who are basically picking up the slack left behind by the larger outlets who don’t really care much about quality these days are the ones working hard to get the stories right. Judging by the talking points being made, the establishment outlets feel that they can simply call them “not real journalism” and block all funding towards them from this system.

While the anti-competitive nature of the legislation is a very valid point to raise, there is also the other side of the coin: well funded misinformation websites. We’re talking about websites that try and sell fake COVID-19 cures, pushing false narratives that elections were stolen, and other right wing extremist websites. Another kind of website that would be of concern is state sponsored news outlets (i.e. sponsored by the Russian government). Those types of websites are, of course, well funded – either by rich oligarchs, wealthy right wing individuals, or funded by massive grifting campaigns. Those are the kinds of sites that would have the funding to leap through the regulations and receive that free money as well.

This is a point that Google is raising. The law requires that at least two journalists be Canadian. It wouldn’t be that hard in Canada to find two people to fill that role. After that, the money can come pouring in. From Global (misinformation in article removed):

Google is warning that the federal government’s online news bill could force it to subsidize non-authoritative or biased news sources, such as the Russian state-sponsored news agency Sputnik.

Google argues the bill’s definition of an eligible news source is so broad that non-professional news outlets with two or more journalists in Canada, including those funded by foreign states, could be eligible for payment from tech giants.

Lauren Skelly, a spokeswoman for Google, said the search engine could face “the imposition of massive fines for presenting the most useful and reliable content to Canadians and enforcing our own policies.”

Skelly said the tech giant supports the central aim of the bill but is concerned the legislation, as drafted, could have unintended consequences, including making it pay news businesses that don’t meet journalistic standards.

This could potentially include two people who set up a digital news organization from their basement, foreign state-sponsored news groups with a bureau in Canada or news outlets with a far-left or far-right bias.

“We have to believe this isn’t an outcome policymakers intended and hope to work with them to address these concerns,” Skelly said.

“The legislation as written uses an extremely broad definition for eligible news businesses and `undue preference’ provisions that, when put into practice, could result in mandatory payment for content that doesn’t meet basic journalistic standards.”

So, what is the section in question that seems to be affected? This:

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

(b) produces news content 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,

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

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

While we looked at this section from a competitive standpoint for smaller players, what Google is seeing in this section is with regards to troll farms and misinformation sites. It really is a very valid point. What’s stopping a troll farm from getting two people to set up a “Canadian” subsidiary, hire two “journalists” and collect the funding after? Nothing much, really.

What’s more is that they don’t even really have to be Canadian citizens. They could be just two people moving in from another country and setting up shop to collect the funding. It doesn’t even have to be a basement. It could just be a cell phone somewhere in the world that would suffice. What’s more is that the provision doesn’t even stipulate quantity, either. It could be as simple as two “journalists” writing one article each, editing each others article, and having it posted on a website after. No further work would need to be done and all the news would just get run through an RSS feed after. Set up a Paypal account and let the money roll in.

In the lens of well funded misinformation campaigns, it’s downright easy to see these laws getting exploited for a fast buck. What’s more is that nothing is stopping these organization from regularly rotating shell websites as well if they get their funding cut off from an earlier attempt. It’s a massive loophole that can be easily exploited by those with nefarious intent.

At any rate, this is a very good point that Google is raising. Combine that with the points we have been raising and you got one heck of a mess on your hands. For one, the legislation goes to great lengths to exclude competition from the established players. At the same time, it can easily cause funding to get funnelled through to misinformation campaigns. Given the sanctions on Russia, there is even the possibility that Google would be compelled to violate those sanctions along the way in the process.

If you need yet another reason to not like the legislation, that would be another good one. The legislation risks funding extremists websites with ill intent. What’s more is, based on what we’ve seen, it would actually be relatively trivial to exploit this law for financial gain. If there is an exploit for financial gain, those with ill intent are going to take advantage of it. Yet another reason to be against this law if you really needed another reason to be against this law in the first place.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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