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Bill C-18 would make tech giants such as Google and Meta pay for reusing news produced by news organizations based in Canada.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Google told MPs Tuesday that the government’s online news bill could benefit “bad actors” and lead to the regulatory system being “gamed and misused” by fringe news organizations to promote their content in Canada.

The search engine told the Commons heritage committee that Bill C-18 – which would make tech giants such as Google and Meta pay for reusing news produced by news organizations based in Canada – could mean Canadians are “served foreign propaganda outlets alongside reporting from Le Devoir or The Globe and Mail.”

Colin McKay, head of government affairs at Google Canada, called for changes to the bill so that only news businesses that “adhere to basic journalistic standards” are eligible for compensation from platforms. He said that if the definition of a news business isn’t refined, it could “lead to the proliferation of misinformation and clickbait.”

The bill would stop tech giants penalizing or giving preference to news groups it has done deals with, which Google says could affect the way it ranks news on its search engine.

The Google executive told MPs that this would mean Google would no longer be able to downgrade “dubious news sources” and elevate trusted information sources over “lower-quality content.”

Opinion: Google Canada’s position on Bill C-18 does not surprise, but it does mislead

Mr. McKay warned the committee that the online news law would open the door for “not well-meaning actors” to promote their content and raise their profile on the search engine. It would mean it could not downgrade “edge cases and smaller organizations that may not be even based here,” he said.

“Payment for links also incentivizes cheap, low-quality clickbait content over public interest journalism, and clearly favours large publishers over small, as they simply have more content to link to,” he told the Commons committee.

The online news bill, modelled on a similar law in Australia, is designed to support Canada’s news industry and combat the spread of news from biased or unreliable sources.

The government challenged Google’s claim that dubious foreign media, such as the Russian state-sponsored broadcaster Sputnik, could benefit, saying the online news bill states that media outlets promoting the interests of an organization cannot take part.

“A free and independent press is the best defence against disinformation,” said Laura Scaffidi, spokeswoman for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez. “C-18 will ensure Canadians have access to quality, fact-based news at the local and national levels.”

Paul Deegan, president of News Media Canada, which represents Canada’s news industry, said: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. Bill C-18 does not encourage misinformation.”

Ben Scott, director of Reset, which is critical of digital media monopolies, accused Google of “doublespeak.” He said it was ironic that Mr. McKay referred to deals Google had done voluntarily with news outlets as commercial licensing agreements. But if Google were mandated to compensate news groups for links to their content under Bill C-18, they would be “link taxes.”

MPs heard that, in some provinces, as many as half of small local newspapers may not qualify for compensation from tech giants under the terms of the bill.

Saskatchewan Tory MP Kevin Waugh, a former TV sports reporter, said around half of newspapers in his region do not employ the required two full-time journalists to qualify for payments.

Dennis Merrell, executive director of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association, said in Alberta, where there are also very small local newspapers, around 50 per cent of media outlets may not be big enough to participate in the scheme.

“It does put us in a bit of an awkward spot,” he said.

The committee was told by witnesses that the industry had been drained of advertising revenue, which had migrated away from newspapers, including local papers, to platforms such as Google and Facebook. This includes advertising from the federal and provincial governments, which used to advertise heavily in local papers.

Kevin Desjardins, president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, said there was a crisis in Canadian newsrooms and it would get worse unless the bill passes.

Mr. McKay said Google had already done deals with Canadian news publishers representing more than 150 publications, 90 per cent of which were smaller regional or local publications.

Brian Myles, editor of Quebec newspaper Le Devoir, said it has done deals for using its content with Google, Meta, Apple News+ and MSN (Microsoft News).

He said the paper, which competes with the platforms for advertising revenue, has a relationship with Google and Meta “based on collaboration and co-operation.”

“We knew that at some point we would have to negotiate with them – and that’s the purpose of C-18 – rather than ending up in a conflictual relationship,” Mr. Myles said.

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