Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
If our fine nation is indeed on the brink of an existential struggle with Big Tech – a fight on par with the Second World War, as our Prime Minister recently suggested – I am afraid I have some bad news for my fellow countrymen: Canada is France, not Britain. Our resolve is as thin as our cause is just, and most Canadians appear content to light a joint as troops march through the Arc de Triomphe.
A rhetorical battle is now being waged over Bill C-18, which received royal assent last month. The bill would force Meta and Google to negotiate deals to pay Canadian journalistic outlets for posting links to news. The tech corporations predictably said that if the government was going to force them to pay for sharing links, they would decline to share those links. And thus, here we are, on the eve of war.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed his own blustery missile into the melee last week: “Facebook decided that Canada was a small country, small enough that they could reject our asks. They made the wrong choice by deciding to attack Canada. We want to defend democracy. This is what we’re doing across the world, such as supporting Ukraine. This is what we did during the Second World War. This is what we’re doing every single day in the United Nations.”
To be clear, what happened is that the government passed poorly conceived legislation in a bid to salvage what’s left of this country’s journalism industry, despite multiple warnings that the companies involved would respond exactly as they have. The invasion of Poland, this was not.
Facebook has been limiting news posts for weeks now, and if Google makes good on its threats, it may wind up throttling traffic to every media outlet in the country. And even if Google and Ottawa do come to some kind of agreement, there’s a good chance that the media industry as a whole will actually be worse off financially.
If there is a war metaphor to be found here, it would look a lot less like the storming of Normandy, and a lot more like Benny Hill running around while Yakety Sax plays in the background. It appears that this country’s capacity for metaphorical battle against Big Tech is as deep as our military’s actual capacity for literal battle. Rimshot. Cue laugh track.
It appears not even Mr. Trudeau believes his own spin. The government has announced token measures to withdraw advertising from Facebook in response to Meta’s decision, but the Liberal Party itself is still gamely posting ads on the site. Even as I type, the party’s Facebook page is parroting its “strong action on plastic waste” and featuring a video of the Prime Minister in a cowboy hat.
So how are we to interpret these decisions, according to Mr. Trudeau’s own metaphorical flourishes? Is this mere capitulation, or outright collusion with the enemy?
Thanks to C-18, Canadians will have a much easier time sharing and finding partisan releases or even propaganda than the news reports and analysis published to undermine that. I would be tempted to accuse the Liberals of playing 4-D chess here, but I think they may have simply lucked into this happy political outcome – one that allows the Liberals to pluckily rail against the indomitable forces of Big Tech, while also undercutting the critics they’re purporting to save.
But I digress. Let’s take the Prime Minister’s war metaphor one step further. Only a few days after issuing that statement, the government signalled it was ready to lay down arms. C-18 may be law, but the government is still working through how it will be enforced via regulation, and Google is hoping that this process will play out as it did in Australia – namely, that the government will blink. Indeed, that appears to be happening.
On July 10, the Ministry of Canadian Heritage issued a document that addressed several of Google’s key concerns with C-18 – namely, that it presented an uncapped liability, and provided no way for the giant to exempt itself from forced negotiation. The government has wavered on both conditions, and is now promising a “financial threshold” for contributions, and will “reaffirm language” that would allow Google to negotiate an “exemption criteria.”
Although these secret discussions appear to be continuing, I suppose I ought to just be relieved that this is not, in fact, a battle of our time, and that such comparisons are inane and ahistoric. After all, it’s become a little too obvious who would stand firm against tyranny, and who would be content to merely costume themselves in the spirit of the Greatest Generation.