It’s Only OK When We Do It: Government Furious Google Polled Canadian’s on Bill C-18

Hypocrisy is shining through again on Bill C-18 again. This time, it involves a response to a poll commissioned by Google.

Earlier, the establishment media funded a poll on Canadian’s and used that to conclude that Canadian’s overwhelmingly support Bill C-18. I know, I’m very skeptical about that too. In fact, during the September 23 hearing on Bill C-18, a government official actually brought that up and all but concluded that Canadians are highly supportive of the legislation. Paul Deegan of News Media Canada responded at the time, agreeing with it, confirming they funded that study, and concluded that Canadians are very well informed about this debate. In reality, the survey’s sole goal was an exercise in confirmation bias because even if data popped up challenging their narrative, it would not be brought up.

More recently, however, an Abacus poll commissioned by Google surveyed Canadians about how much they really know about Bill C-18 and whether Canadian’s share Google’s concerns about the unintended consequences and fatal flaws in the legislation. The results of that study was openly published and anyone can read through it.

In terms of being informed about the bill, it seems that Canadians are much less informed then the establishment media has let on. In all, 34% of Canadians hadn’t even heard of the bill before they were asked about it by pollsters. In addition to that, a whopping 33% have only heard about it. Now, that basically amounts to me telling you that there is a bill called Bill C-18 that is related to online news. If you know nothing else about it, then you would very easily fall into that category.

In addition to that, 25% of those polled said that they are somewhat familiar with the bill. In terms of being informed about the bill when it comes to the general public, that really is the best you can hope for in terms of average, every day Canadians being informed of the bill. People do have lives and, no, their lives do not revolve around issues that are of specific interest to you. Finally, a mere 8% describe themselves as very familiar with the bill. Now, this could range from people who have actually read through the bill to those who are told what to think of this bill via the media outlets actively lobbying for this legislation.

At any rate, this easily goes against the narrative that Canadian’s are ‘very well informed’ of this legislation.

Another set of findings in the research was also very revealing:

Only 21% of Canadians believe that a social media platform should be required to pay the news organization a fee when someone shares an article on a Canadian news website on their social media account.

Only 30% of Canadians believe that Google should have to pay a fee to news organizations if someone clicked on a link to a news website that showed up in a search result.

And 79% of Canadians said they would definitely not (58%) or probably not (21%) pay a small fee to access a news article that appeared in a Google search result.

In the final section of the survey, Canadians were shown concerns raised by Google about Bill C-18 and asked to what extent those concerns worry them about C-18.

For example:

– 70% are worried when they find out that “the bill gives the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) unprecedented, sweeping new powers to regulate every aspect of the Canadian news industry even though these decisions are far outside of its expertise as a broadcast regulator.”

– 69% are worried when they find out “the proposed law uses an extremely broad definition for “eligible news businesses” and doesn’t require eligible news organizations to follow basic journalistic standards.”

– 69% are worried when they find out Online News Act would require companies like Google to pay news businesses simply so that they can help you find what you’re looking for. This is what’s known as a “link tax” and it fundamentally breaks the way search (and the internet) have always worked. Requiring payment for links risks limiting Canadians’ access to the information they depend on.

– 65% are worried when they find out “a section of the bill prohibits companies like Google from using ranking, or showing you the content most relevant to your search, first. It also could allow blogs, foreign state-owned media, or any other “eligible news business” to inflate their ranking in your search results, preventing Google from presenting you with the most reliable and useful content, making Search (and the internet) less useful and less safe.”

So, a whole bunch of results that really run counter to the suggestion that Canadian’s are overwhelmingly supportive of the legislation and pushes the debate towards the idea that people share the concerns Google is raising about the legislation.

This survey does two things. One is that it provides an excellent counter-argument towards the establishment media’s poll. Further, it does a great job at cancelling out the first poll in that if you have criticisms about this study, then maybe you should have the same criticisms about the previous study as well. Either that or this poll provides the other side of the story on this debate.

Now, the fact that Google has asked Abacus to conduct a separate poll has apparently infuriated the establishment media and the very government they’ve been shovelling money towards for years through lobbying. The government seems upset that Google would go out and ask Canadians their opinion about Bill C-18 because, well, very likely that it’s only OK when their side does it. From the Toronto Star:

A national survey commissioned by Google painting Ottawa’s online news bill as flawed and a potential vehicle for misinformation has been slammed by the federal government as an attempt to “avoid accountability.”

“We’re concerned that Bill C-18 will have negative impacts on Canadians’ ability to find and share authoritative news online and unpredictable outcomes for the evolving news ecosystem,” said Google spokesperson Shay Purdy.

“We think it’s relevant that Canadians broadly share these concerns and want to see us work together with the government to address them.”

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s office fired back at Google after the report was published.

“The Online News Act protects local news. It is not a link tax: Canadians are not paying for anything, and no money goes to the government. The Online News Act does not require Google Search to remove or restrict search results. It outlines an objective set of criteria, removed from political decision-making, to determine eligible news organizations,” said spokesperson Laura Scaffidi.

“We continue to have constructive conversations with Google, as recently as last week, yet they continue to pull from their playbook and continue to try to avoid accountability, here and abroad.”

This ultimately highlights another problem for the establishment media and their government partners in this debate: the inability to really respond to criticism about this legislation.

For instance, there is the criticism that this legislation could very easily force platforms to shovel money to state sponsored troll farms and fake news outlets. We fact checked that and found that this criticism is definitely a legitimate one. Establishment media and the government, however, have yet to respond to that criticism.

Another criticism is that the legislation violates Canada’s international trade obligations such as the Berne Convention with respect to quotation rights. The establishment media and the government, to our knowledge, had no counterargument to that.

A third criticism is that small digital first news outlets (such as us) would not qualify, thereby mandating a market advantage to the establishment players. The governments response so far is to just deny this. The establishment media’s response has been that small outlets are covered – yet when pressed for examples, they often side media organizations with multiple physical locations and numerous employees collectively, not single person operations or operations that have a very tiny crew of people keeping the lights on. So, a denial and a misleading counterargument that utterly fails to address the criticism.

So, what is the government and establishments media’s response to this? Revert to meaningless talking points and misinformation. Both players pushing this legislation are doing themselves very little favours here in all of this.

University Law professor, Michael Geist, also weighed in on this development, saying that the reaction from the government counters the strategy of ensuring that Canadian’s are not well informed about the bill:

While I don’t think any of these results are particularly surprising (and concern about misinformation should be heartening), the government and supporters of Bill C-18 reacted with alarm. Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s spokesperson said the company was continuing to try to “avoid accountability.” News Media Canada made the comments noted above, while Taylor Owen tweeted that many of the questions raised concerns about the bill that weren’t true and that the survey did not serve the public interest in having a reasonable debate about it. I don’t recall similar objections to the News Media Canada poll which could be critiqued on much the same grounds.

I think the response is notable for two reasons. First, supporters “doth protest too much” since the questions do reflect legitimate concerns about the bill. As I’ve written, the CRTC intervention in the news media would be unprecedented with this bill. That may not mean the Commission would have “sweeping new powers to regulate every aspect of the Canadian news industry” (presumably a reference to the code of conduct it can establish), but the question is closer to reality than Rodriguez’s false claim that his bill involves “minimal market intervention.” Similarly, the “facilitating access to news” standard for payments targets even basic search results to news sites, there are no minimum journalistic standards built into the law, and there are real risks that Bill C-18 will increase clickbait and misinformation. There is room for reasoned debate around these issues, but the government and Bill C-18 supporters don’t want to have that conversation. Instead, as demonstrated by yesterday’s reaction, they are much more comfortable having a discussion about unaccountable platforms rather than unaccountable government.

Second, the strong reaction reflects the reality that the poll runs counter to the government’s primary strategy on Bill C-18, namely to limit public awareness and debate on the bill. Minister Rodriguez has incredibly never even given a speech on his own bill in the House of Commons and the government cut off debate after only a couple of hours in the House. The committee “study” has been embarrassing. The Minister and officials have still not appeared, despite the common approach of appearing twice – once to open the hearings and then at the conclusion of witnesses to address issues that were raised. The hearings themselves (there have been two so far – I appeared in the first hearing – with a further hearing scheduled for this week) have been a grab bag of witnesses often headlined by a government-backed non-Canadian witness invited to criticize the tech companies. The goal is quite clearly to limit study of the actual bill that might identify and address potential concerns.

In terms of the direction this legislation is going, it looks like it is going to be history repeating itself. Bill C-11 was rammed through with little discussion or debate, “gag orders” on democratic processes, and a sham study process. Where we are at now is that the Canadian Senate is stuck with figuring out if it’s even possible to clean up the mess left behind by the disaster that was the House of Commons level debate. Unless something changes dramatically with the House of Commons level, Bill C-18 is going to share the same fate of having the Senate deal with yet another disaster of a mess just like Bill C-11. Hopefully, Senators would, in that scenario, share the same level of skepticism and, at least, have a proper study of the bill.

What sucks for us is the very real threat that our content would ultimately get demoted in Google. We would be unable to qualify as journalism (even though our credibility runs circles around some of these mainstream outlets), yet our links would get treated as something that is, as absurd as it sounds, compensible. This incentivizes Google to simply relegate outlets such as Freezenet to the back of the line. If money was charged for hosting our links, we would be blocked from getting that money, thus allowing mainsteam outlets to essentially steal money from us. The net result is that it would become extremely difficult for Freezenet to even be seen anywhere on these platforms, thus cutting off our potential audiences as well and ensuring that we might not make a dime ever again for our hard work to bring you the real story. It’s a situation that completely sucks for outlets like ours.

At any rate, it is almost laughable that the government reacted they way they did. It’s hypocritical to wave around their own study sponsored by the very lobbyists pushing for this bill like it is the be-all end-all of where Canadians stand. Yet, at the same time, when Google commissions a study to look at the concerns from a different angle, that is somehow an outrage. All the governments reaction did was make supporters of Bill C-18 look even more ridiculous then they already did – an accomplishment, really.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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