Pablo Rodriguez says he remains optimistic he can reach agreement with Google and even Facebook so they comply with the federal government’s online news bill, but “all options are on the table” when it comes to how Ottawa could respond if they make good on threats to restrict Canadians’ access to news.
In an interview Tuesday with The Globe and Mail, the Heritage Minister did not rule out removing millions of dollars of federal government advertising from the platforms. Last year’s annual report on government advertising shows that Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta, earned $11,423,728 from government advertising in 2021-22, while Google gained $8,757,234.
Mr. Rodriguez said his “first choice is not to go there” and he would prefer sitting down and “getting somewhere in discussions” with Google and Meta.
“I think we’re having productive conversations with Google. I would hope that we could have the same conversations with Meta. It’s up to them,” he said. “There’s an open invitation for Meta to meet with me.”
Meta said last week that it plans to follow through with its threat to end millions of Canadians’ ability to access and share news on both platforms, after the federal government’s Online News Act gained royal assent. Mr. Rodriguez believes Facebook “is fighting us” because “they’re not used to being regulated.”
The act was designed to support the Canadian news industry, which has seen its advertising migrate to the big-tech platforms, and intended to make Facebook and Google negotiate deals to compensate news outlets for posting or linking to their work.
Meta said both of its platforms would block access to news before the act takes effect, expected in six months’ time. Mr. Rodriguez has been holding talks with Google executives in the United States to prevent a similar move from the search engine, which has said it is also considering restricting the ability of Canadians to find news in response to the Online News Act.
He said the government is “definitely ready to listen and work with them,” but he would not make a decision under threat. “I much prefer the approach that Google is having at this moment than Meta – they keep threatening – and no company is above the law.”
The Heritage Minister said the “whole world is watching what Canada is doing,” with a string of other countries preparing similar legislation to make platforms pay publishers for posting or linking to their news.
On Tuesday, the parent companies of the country’s two largest newspaper chains, Postmedia Network Canada Corp. and Nordstar Capital LP, announced they were in merger talks, working on a deal that would slash debt and build a media business better able to compete with global digital platforms.
Mr. Rodriguez said there was no prospect, now that Bill C-18 has passed through Parliament, of putting it on ice, before it comes into force and regulations kick in, to try to stop Meta and Google withdrawing Canadians’ access to news.
But he said he was willing to “talk about the regulations and see if we can agree on stuff.”
The Heritage Minister said he remained optimistic that Facebook might yet not make good on its warning it will withdraw from news in response to the bill, saying they had restricted Australians’ access to news in response to similar legislation and then restored it.
“It makes perfect sense for Facebook to sit down with the government, negotiate a deal,” he said, because it would give them a better image with Canadians who don’t like it when a big company tries to intimidate them and Parliament.
“I don’t think that it’s playing very well actually, across the country and even internationally,” he said of Meta’s response to the Online News Act.
In the interview, Mr. Rodriguez also defended the decision to include the federally-funded CBC and campus radio stations in Bill C-18, rather than only requiring tech giants to make agreements with print media, especially hard-pressed local papers. He said CBC is an important part of the news ecosystem.
“They play a role in different regions. In some regions, if it wasn’t for them, there would be no coverage.”
He suggested that with the passing of the bill, there might be room to address some of Google’s concerns through the regulatory process.
Google says it is unclear how it could become exempt from regulation under the Online News Act, and whether existing deals with publishers for using news would count to that end. Google and Facebook already have a number of deals with news organizations, including The Globe.
“This is normal from a business perspective,” Mr. Rodriguez said of Google’s calls for clarity and certainty.
“You need the framework, you need the bill, and then you can adapt some stuff through the regulations,” he said. “I totally understand their needs, where they’re coming from.”