Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has condemned Google’s decision to block thousands of Canadians from finding news websites using its search bar, saying the move is troubling and a “terrible mistake.”
The tech giant has said the restrictions will last for five weeks, and that they are a test of a potential response to the federal government’s online-news bill, known as Bill C-18. The legislation would force Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations for posting or linking to their work.
As Mr. Trudeau made his remarks at a Friday news conference in Toronto, the Commons heritage committee was preparing to summon Google executives to explain what a cross-party group of MPs on the committee called “damaging and reckless behaviour.”
Mr. Trudeau said the move by Google is “very sad” and “extremely troubling.”
“It really surprises me that Google has decided that they’d rather prevent Canadians from accessing news than actually paying journalists for the work they do. I think that’s a terrible mistake, and I know Canadians expect journalists to be well paid for the work they do,” he said.
The online news bill has passed through the Commons and is now being considered in the Senate. Some Canadian news organizations, including The Globe and Mail, have already made compensation agreements with big tech platforms.
The tests, which Google said in a statement earlier this week would affect only about 4 per cent of its Canadian users, have provoked a backlash and prompted calls for the federal government to pull back its own advertising from the tech giant.
Commons heritage committee chair Hedy Fry said she is now working out the practicalities of a special meeting to question Google executives after MPs requested one.
She said the date “will depend on availability of committee rooms and resources, which are under House administration.”
Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs on the committee – who together have a majority – wrote to Ms. Fry on Thursday asking for the meeting “at the earliest opportunity to summon leadership from Google to explain this damaging and reckless behaviour.”
The signatories include Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez’s parliamentary secretary, Chris Bittle, and Liberal MP Anthony Housefather.
Mr. Housefather said he wants Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, to be called to testify. He added that Google executives should have to “explain to parliamentarians and Canadians why they have taken the action to test blocking of news sites in Canada.”
Google has said Canadians affected by the tests are experiencing varying degrees of limited access to news sites using its search function. It is still possible for those users to access news by typing the sites’ addresses into web browsers.
Google has been sharply critical of Bill C-18, which it says will result in the proliferation of misinformation and clickbait. The company has also said the bill would subject it to a “link tax” for helping its users find news. And it is concerned that Commons amendments to Bill C-18 will force it to make payments to an expanded group of media organizations, including community radio stations.
Mr. Rodriguez, the Heritage Minister, accused Google of using “scare tactics” as the bill begins its passage through the Senate.
“Canadians won’t be intimidated. At the end of the day, all we’re asking the tech giants to do is compensate news organizations when they use their work,” he said.
Shay Purdy, a Google spokesman, said Google is “briefly testing product responses” to the bill. “We run thousands of tests each year to assess any potential changes to search,” he added.
But groups representing the news industry questioned whether the tests were random.
“We were somewhat surprised by the company’s statement that this only affected 4 per cent of users, given the number of journalists who have come forward to say they noticed it,” said Paul Deegan, president of News Media Canada, which represents the news industry.
He urged MPs to ask Google executives who is being targeted by the tests, and “which executives in Canada and Mountain View approved of or had advance knowledge of this scheme to deny access to trusted news sources.”
Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said the ban “seems to be disproportionately impacting journalists and media workers.”
“While we are working to better understand the scale and impact of this allegation, it nevertheless underscores a troubling reality: that a private enterprise is able, seemingly at the wave of a magic wand, to put a chill on the public’s right to information,” he said.