Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez says the “world is watching Canada” because of its federal online news bill as he urged senators to stand up to the tech giants’ threats to withdraw access to news on their platforms.
Addressing senators examining Bill C-18, Mr. Rodriguez asked if “we collectively have the courage to stand up to the big digital platforms.”
“And I’m looking around the table, I think the answer, I know the answer, will be yes,” he told the transport and communications committee.
Mr. Rodriguez made his comments after Facebook began conducting several weeks of tests in response to the bill, blocking up to 1.2 million Canadians’ ability to view or share news on the platform. It has warned that it will withdraw Canadians’ access to news on Facebook if Bill C-18 passes without changes and has said it wants to be transparent about its plans.
Earlier this year, Google conducted five weeks of tests in response to Bill C-18, restricting around 1.1 million Canadians’ access to news through its search bar.
The Prime Minister accused the tech giants of “bullying tactics,” saying they would not persuade the federal government to back down.
“The fact that these internet giants would rather cut off Canadians’ access to local news than pay their fair share is a real problem, and now they’re resorting to bullying tactics to try and get their way. It’s not going to work,” Justin Trudeau said at a news conference. “We will continue to make sure that these incredibly profitable corporations contribute to strengthening our democracy, not weakening it.”
Bill C-18 would make Google and Meta-owned Facebook compensate news organizations for posting or linking to their work. It follows similar legislation in Australia.
Senator Paula Simons asked Mr. Rodriguez what the government would do if Facebook and Google withdraw from news in response to the bill.
“I am never going to make any decision on threats. I never did, I never will – never,” Mr. Rodriguez replied, saying it is up to Facebook to make a business decision on whether it wants to withdraw from news. He said the tech giant has his mobile phone number and he was open to talks.
“I don’t know why we are discussing about the threats and trying to be scared about the threats when the government has options, senator. There’s other things we can do, and all options are on the table … in terms of advertising, different programs.”
Ms. Simons asked if that meant the government could withdraw advertising from the platforms, and redirect it back to traditional media.
Mr. Rodriguez said withdrawing from news in Canada would be “detrimental” to the platforms, including to their reputations.
“I don’t think it’s the best move,” he said. “I think it’s important to act as a good corporate citizen.”
He said the bill would bring the platforms to the bargaining table, though he wanted the negotiations to take place as freely as possible.
He compared the current situation with the “Wild West,” saying there were no current obligations for tech giants to enter agreements with publishers.
Mr. Rodriguez said he had been having many conversations with ministers from EU countries about Ottawa’s bill adding that “Canada is really leading the way.” Britain, India and the U.S. are also preparing similar legislation said Senator Peter Harder, who is shepherding the bill through the Senate.
At a technical briefing earlier this week, Google said that if Canada’s law was replicated globally it could cost the company billions of dollars. It says it wants to hold constructive discussions with Mr. Rodriguez about the legislation, which it says could impose open-ended financial liabilities if it has to compensate publishers for links to news.
Facebook, Google and Apple have already signed some partnership deals with news organizations in Canada, including The Globe and Mail.
The minister said Canada’s “traditional news sector is in crisis” with hundreds of news organizations closing their doors in 335 communities.
He said there is a “big power imbalance in our news marketplace and the recent actions of big platforms are a clear demonstration of this.”
Mr. Rodriguez said the bill won’t be “a silver bullet” for the challenges facing the media sector.
“But it will give Canadian news media a chance to rebuild and thrive in a more sustainable, fairer news ecosystem.”
Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux said if Facebook were to withdraw from news, and not have to compensate publishers, Google would have more negotiating power with publishers, as a monopoly.