As Canada prepares sweeping new regulations for online content, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is in regular contact with the handful of governments already headed in that direction – some of them dealing with fierce blowback from Facebook and Google.
Australia, France, Germany, the European Union and Britain are all moving to varying degrees toward stronger regulation of social-media platforms in terms of hate speech and compensation for news publishers.
The Australian news media proposal is facing particularly strong opposition from Google, which has threatened to block access to its hegemonic search engine unless the government backs down. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently responded by saying he had reached out to Microsoft, which assured him its Bing search engine could fill the void if Google’s were to disappear.
The high-level drama playing out in Australia and elsewhere provides an advance look at where Canada’s political landscape could soon be heading.
Mr. Guilbeault said in an interview that while he’s looking closely at France’s and Australia’s approach to social media and news, and speaks regularly with officials in those countries, Canada’s approach will be unique.
“Ultimately what we’re trying to do is to find a mechanism by which there can be a fair compensation to Canadian media for the usage of their content by Facebook and Google … and arguably there are only two other models out there that we can look at to determine how we will do it in Canada,” he said. “Because as appealing as the French model or the Australian model could be, you can’t just cut and paste legislation or regulation that was done in another country. … So it has to be tailor-made, and that’s really what we’re working on right now.”
In the coming weeks, Mr. Guilbeault is planning to introduce legislation that will create a new regulator to oversee how social-media platforms deal with content such as hate speech. He is then planning to table a second bill in the spring that will require social-media companies to compensate news organizations for the use of their content.
Details are few, but the recent moves by Australia and other countries provide a sense of where Mr. Guilbeault is going.
“I’ve had numerous conversations with Australia [and] the Australian regulator that would be responsible [for] the media portion of the conversation,” Mr. Guilbeault said. He described the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission as a combination of Canada’s broadcast regulator – the CRTC – and its Competition Bureau.
“What they’re doing from a very detailed point of view is of great interest to us,” he said.
Australia also has an eSafety Commissioner, an office that can hear complaints about issues such as cyberbullying or requests to remove intimate images from online platforms and has the authority to impose financial penalties. Mr. Guilbeault has said Canada’s online regulator will have powers to stop the unauthorized use of intimate images, sometimes referred to as revenge porn.
Britain announced in December that it will bring in legislation this year to empower its broadcast regulator to oversee new rules imposing a legal duty of care on online platforms, with a focus on protecting children.
In recent months, Mr. Guilbeault has had discussions with officials in France, Finland, Germany, the European Union and Britain to discuss their approaches to regulating the internet.
On the media front, Google recently agreed to a licensing arrangement in France under which the company pays news organizations for the use of their stories on its news platform.
Google says Australia’s proposals go much further.
“If the [Australian] law requires Google to pay to link people to websites, it’s a slippery slope,” wrote Mel Silva, the managing director for Google Australia, in a recent online post. “After all, if one type of business gets paid for appearing in [Google] Search, why shouldn’t others? Going down that route would destroy the business model of any search engine, Google included.”
Ms. Silva told an Australian Senate hearing last month that if the current plan went ahead, “it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia.” For its part, Facebook has said it would remove some news services from its platform if Australia goes ahead with its plan.
Over the weekend, an Australian minister said in a televised interview that the government was “very close” to reaching a deal on journalism funding with Facebook and Google.
Microsoft president Brad Smith, whose company is promoting its Bing search engine as an alternative to Google Search, released a statement on Feb. 11 calling Facebook’s and Google’s response to the Australian plan “dramatic” and saying the U.S. government should drop its opposition to the proposals.
“The United States should not object to a creative Australian proposal that strengthens democracy by requiring tech companies to support a free press. It should copy it instead,” Mr. Smith wrote.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.