The new Heritage Minister, Pascale St-Onge, says she will stand her ground against the tech giants, as Facebook prepares to push the button on its plan to block Canadians’ access to news in response to the Online News Act.
Ms. St-Onge, who took over from Pablo Rodriguez in this week’s cabinet shuffle, steps straight into the fray over Bill C-18, including negotiations with Google, which has also threatened to block Canadians’ ability to search for news.
The new minister signalled Thursday that she is not prepared to further soften the government’s line with the tech giants, saying she is “deeply committed to ensuring that Canada has a free and independent press, because it’s fundamental to our democracy.”
“Our government is going to keep standing our ground,” she told The Globe and Mail. “Canadians expect tech giants to pay their fair share.”
The Online News Act, which received royal assent last month, was designed to support the Canadian news industry, which has seen advertising migrate to the Big Tech platforms. It would make Facebook and Google negotiate deals to compensate news outlets in Canada for posting or linking to their work.
Concerns were raised Thursday that the government’s position could be weakened with the expected departure of key political staff – who have been negotiating with Google and know the legislation in detail – to the Transport ministry with Mr. Rodriguez.
Ottawa has yet to decide which political staff will accompany ministers to their new departments, including chiefs of staff, and how long transition periods – where existing political staff help new ministers adjust to their new roles – will last.
Kevin Desjardins, President of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, said Ms. St-Onge is used to tough negotiations and is unlikely to be cowed by the tech giants’ tactics. But he warned “it will be important for there to be continuity in the minister’s office and those working on this file to ensure that the momentum isn’t lost” in dealings with Facebook and Google.
“I don’t think she will be intimidated by them. I think she will be ready for the challenge,” he said. ”This has to be the hottest file the government has to deal with in the last few months, and it hasn’t crossed the finish line yet.”
Ms. St-Onge, the former sport minister and onetime president of Quebec’s biggest media and cultural-sector union, is being briefed by officials on the Online News Act.
Among those getting her up to speed is Owen Ripley, associate assistant deputy minister, who answered technical questions from MPs and senators in multiple parliamentary hearings about the legislation.
“It will also be important that she takes the time to engage with all stakeholders, so she understands the nuances of their respective positions, and can ensure the regulations are balanced and predictable for all,” said Paul Deegan, president and chief executive of News Media Canada, which represents the news industry.
As Sport Minister in the Heritage department, Ms. St-Onge was in charge of the government’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct in sport. Ottawa temporarily suspended federal funding to Hockey Canada after it faced allegations about secretive funds to settle sexual-assault claims against players.
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting said they believed the minister, former head of Quebec’s Fédération nationale des communications et de la culture, would not be cowed by the tech giants’ financial muscle and threats to block news.
“When it comes to C-18, the bullying tactics by the foreign tech giants have left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,” said executive director Marla Boltman. “Given the wealth of cultural experience that Minister St-Onge brings to the table, particularly in the news sector, it’s hard to imagine the minister will have much of an appetite for these antics.”
Meta is expected to block Canadians’ ability to post and share news on Facebook and Instagram within the next week. Google is in the midst of negotiations with the government and has said it too will block access to news unless a “viable” way forward is found through regulations.
Google has complained that the bill is vague on how much platforms would be expected to pay publishers overall, or how many deals it would need to do with them to be exempt from regulation.
In a statement Thursday, Google said it continues to have “significant concerns about structural issues with C-18″ and is still “uncertain they can be sufficiently addressed through regulations.”
“We hope that the government will be able to outline a viable path forward before the law takes effect,” it said.
In response to the bill, both Google and Meta have carried out tests blocking access to Canadian news sites.
Meta is also seeking clarity from Heritage about whether allowing links to news on Threads – its newly launched rival to Twitter – would mean it would be subject to the Online News Act, which the social-media giant wants to avoid.