Mike Masnick Calls Google Government Deal a Threat to the Open Internet, But is it Really?

The Canada Google deal may wind up being a nothing burger in the end, but Mike Masnick says it’s a threat to the open internet.

When the Canadian government ultimately folded to Google, I spoke about how easy it was to simply fixate on the $100 million price tag. When you peal back the layers in the story, you start to understand just how little the government got out of the deal and how Google got pretty much everything it asked for. Factors include how the $100 million isn’t all new money, that the $100 million won’t even come close to really changing much in the news sector in the country, the fact that the CBC is ultimately getting a third of that money, and the fact that it is a fund model that was originally asked for, but resoundingly rejected by supporters as somehow “unworkable”.

Based on what information I got out of how the debate unfolded, what the parties were seeking, and what they ended up getting, the only solution I could come up with to describe the deal is that the Canadian government ultimately caved to Google, desperate to land any deal and use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Supporters were furious at the government, Google and the CBC (likely the biggest beneficiary of this deal) were all smiles and happiness, and the Canadian government did what they could to spin this as some sort of win for them when, in reality, they narrowly avoided being known as the government that decimated the news sector in this country.

So, you can imagine my genuine surprise when Mike Masnick of Techdirt ultimately did a writeup yesterday describing the deal as Google caving to the government. when I saw the report, a number of questions went rolling through my mind. Questions like if there was a detail I missed that changes everything, new details that have since emerged that changes the picture, or if there was some sort of angle that I had somehow overlooked. As it turns out, it was none of the above.

Now, I’ll preface this article by saying I do have a lot of respect for Masnick. He has a lot of insightful and interesting articles on a variety of topics. It is actually very rare that I end up disagreeing with him on the various digital rights issues. In fact, I could count on one hand the number of times I have disagreed with him on various issues over the years. Considering how much he writes and how long I have been following him on, that is a really impressive thing in my view. I think the only things I have ever disagreed with him on things was his initial opposition to network neutrality rules (which he has since changed his mind on), his opposition to the GDPR, and now, his take on the Google Canada agreement.

To re-iterate and be crystal clear, my disagreeing with him on this issue won’t change the level of respect I have for him. When you have similar interests in coverage, it’s going to be an eventuality that you disagree with that person sooner or later. That’s just the way it is. It’s going to happen sooner or later and, well, it has happened here.

So, let’s back things up a little to provide some context here. Fixating on the $100 million price tag and little else is generally an extremely problematic thing for reasons mentioned above. The other thing to keep in mind is that Google has a variety of programs that offer funding grants and free training to news organizations. This is something that Google has generally provided since long before the link tax nonsense started up. This is not exactly a secret as such programs can be easily found. Moreover, the fact that Google offers a variety of programs was one of the many points that Google raised throughout the debate. Like all the logic, reason, and pleas for sanity in the debates, however, these points that were raised were flatly ignored by the government and their lobbyist backers.

Now, the question is, is it controversial that Google offers programs like this? If it is… I’m not seeing it. This is a voluntary initiative by Google, so why would it be controversial? This bears some resemblance to the fact that Google offers revenue sharing programs whether through their Google Adsense programs be it on YouTube or on the web for web developers. We can question the motives if you like for offering such programs, but I think the only real complaint about such programs is that the payouts are too small and have been shrinking over the last decade. That is probably best left for its own article, but the point is, Google was always for offering some sort of training program or offering financial aid to news organizations in the first place.

That leads us to our first part of Masnick’s coverage of this:

As we had detailed, almost everything about the Canadian Online News Act (C-18) was a corrupt monstrosity. Link taxes, themselves, are a fundamentally bad idea, that do real harm to both the open internet and the media.

I’ve seen lots of people on both sides “claiming victory” here. The Canadian government is claiming victory because they got the corporate welfare program they wanted, forcing Google to hand cash over to news organizations (the same news organizations that endorse politicians). Google and some of its supporters are claiming victory, because the structure of the deal more or less ignores the actual Online News Act for a side agreement that says “Google gives $100 million in exchange for Canada ignoring the actual law they passed.”

That is, the agreement is that Google forks over this money (close to half of what the government had claimed the company “owed” news orgs) and doesn’t have to negotiate with different news orgs, but with a single party that will distribute the money to news orgs.

Of course, we know how that setup works, because we’ve seen it before in other industries, like the music industry, and it always ends up a corrupt mess. The big news orgs will get some cash via this program, and be forever compromised in their coverage of Google. The smaller news orgs will get shafted. Down in Australia, which has a similar setup, despite the grand promises of everyone involved, smaller news orgs have suffered.

It’s a bit of a weird characterization to describe this whole debate as a Google vs government fight. Yes, they were players in this debate, but there was a whole lot of independent voices thrown into the mix as well that vary in political stripe. If there was ever a side I was on (as I would consider myself one of the independent voices on the matter), I would say I’m on the side of the free and open internet. Is that really a side? In this context, I’m not entirely sure. It strikes me as a relatively neutral position to take in the first place – assuming we are insistent that everyone has to take a “side”.

Masnick is right in that this issue does raise questions about journalistic integrity. I’ve said it myself that if you are a news organization, are you really going to criticize an entity when your paycheck depends on pleasing them? Not really.

Things kind of go sideways in the article (at least in my view, when we reach this:

Either way, while the deal isn’t a complete victory for the Canadian government, it’s still a loss to the open internet. As with Australia’s News Bargaining Code (and a similar deal by Google and Meta there), it only serves to inspire other countries to pass similar “bribe us too!” laws.

And anyone who thinks this is going to stop at news providers is not paying attention. Others are going to start demanding free cash from successful tech companies via government lobbying. Why wouldn’t you?

Whoa whoa whoa, “isn’t a complete victory for the Canadian government”? While Masnick touches on some of the details of the agreement, it sounds like he completely glossed over those details and concluded that any deal at all is a loss. Whenever I see someone try to make the argument that the Canadian government “won”, one of the first things I look for is details on what it is the government actually “won”. I’ve poured over the details and I can only come up with two things that the government actually got:

  1. Being able to say that they got a “deal”
  2. Averting the blocking of news links on Google

That, in my books, is a really REALLY short list of things the government got out of this. After reading Masnick’s article, I’m not seeing anywhere that expands such a list. Yet, at the same time, I could go on and on about all the things the government didn’t get (and Masnick actually touched on this as well). Did the government get payments for links? No. Did the government get the originally asked for dollar amount? No. What about getting Google to negotiate individual deals with individual publishers? That isn’t happening. How about being able to keep a hands off approach to these negotiated deals? Not happening either. Unlimited liability for Google? That ship has sailed.

Every time I go through what was asked and what was gotten, the characterization of the Canadian government not scoring a complete victory greatly over-values what the government got out of this in the first place as far as I can tell. Look, I’m totally being open to being wrong in my opinion. If I’m shown compelling evidence that I’m wrong on something, I’ll happily admit I’m wrong, but Masnick’s article really doesn’t offer any compelling evidence that moves the needle on my assessment of what the two big stakeholders got.

Yet, despite that, Masnick calls this deal a loss for the open internet. Why? He relies on mostly theoreticals in that other countries would get inspired by this and demand similar payments. I’m not against calling it bribe payments because that’s exactly what this ultimately is about, but if the worry surrounds what other countries might do in response to this, I can tell you right now that, in that case, the outcome of the debate in Canada would never have mattered. Why, well, let’s run through the three possible outcomes including the actual outcome of this.

Scenario 1: No deal materializes and Google drops news links.

In this scenario, the link tax supporters internationally would’ve concluded that Canada was a small market and the only way to get Google to listen is to have other countries push similar laws in the first place. Likely, there will be a mentality that “Big Tech” might have stopped the Canadian version, but they can’t stop every country. Link tax gets pushed.

Scenario 2: A pay model that averts the link tax system emerges, giving Google what it wanted in the first place (what actually happened).

In this scenario, those supporting the link tax in other countries look at Canada and lie that Google caved. They claim that the link tax is an international standard now and it is up to other countries to follow suit. Link tax gets pushed.

Scenario 3: Platforms cave and strike deals with publishers to pay for links.

In this final scenario, link tax supports loudly proclaim that they are right that link taxes are the new normal, claim critics have been wrong all this time, and demand that their respective governments implement their own link taxes under the fake risk of their own country falling behind. Link tax gets pushed.

If there is a difference between any of these three scenarios and the scammy activities of those pushing this ridiculous link tax law concept in other countries, I’m not seeing it. Link tax supporters will do anything and everything to get their way. They will lie, cheat, and steal with zero hesitation regardless of what events unfold. Trust me, I’ve seen this first hand here in Canada. Their lying is pathological and they never ever stop.

Because of this, I’m not exactly sure how this deal even really moves the needle on where we are at internationally with regards to the link tax. If anything, because there was less money here than Australia (the less creative accounting you apply, the smaller the number), it shows that if you push harder, the platforms push back harder. Yes, this will hinge on how the debate ultimately unfolds in other countries of course.

With respect to the second paragraph in Masnick’s snippet, this was something I was fearing as well when this went down in Australia. I vaguely remember there was a push by another industry to be similarly included (I can’t seem to find a link on that), but that push eventually collapsed. I’m not sure if anything ever actually materialized along those lines since. There might be lobbying for it here in Canada, but I’m not sure that such lobbying would go anywhere (again, if I’m wrong on that, I can admit that I’m wrong on that).

Masnick concluded with this:

I had hoped that Google would actually stand by its principles on this one, but increasingly we’ve seen that Google has no problem compromising on those principles to cut deals with governments. Meta, for now, is still standing strong, but it caved in Australia and it’s probably only a matter of time until it caves here too.

Yes, Meta’s move on this remains to be seen here as well. Earlier this week, I had seen reports that the government was supposedly being diplomatic and trying to talk to Meta, but barely two days later, the government went back to threatening Meta by trying to sick the CRTC on them (yeah, so much for the CRTC being an “arms length” body). That lowers the chance that things will change much on that front. Unless there is a surprise forthcoming, I think Meta will still be blocking news links by the time December 19 rolls around given how much the government has that “my way or the highway” attitude these days.

Again, in case this somehow gets lost here, I still have a lot of respect for Masnick and I’ll happily continue poking my head in from time to time on his site. He has great coverage on a variety of topics I similarly cover and I’ll continue to have respect for him. In this particular instance, though, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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