The (Not-So) Secret Side of Bill C-18: Google Tests Blocking Online News Content for Canadians

The (Not-So) Secret Side of Bill C-18: Google Tests Blocking Online News Content for Canadians

Katie Graham is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

On February 22, 2023, it was revealed that Google is blocking news content on its platform for under 4% of Canadian users in a five-week test as a potential protest of Bill C-18. While Parliament referred to this secret news blocking test by the tech giant as “appalling,” this reality of Bill C-18 does not come as a surprise to critics who voiced these concerns throughout the legislative process.

Bill C-18, the Online News Act, was first passed by the House of Commons in April 2022 and aimed to respect online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada. This legislation would provide news publishers with a framework to strike deals with tech giants, such as Google and Meta, to share the revenue they receive when reposting news content from publishers.

Parliament stressed that Bill C-18 will help recoup financial losses sustained by the news media industry in Canada. However, there is great concern as to whether Google and/or Meta will limit or fully shut down its news aggregation services to avoid payments. These concerns are warranted, as Google shut down its Google News outlet in Spain for eight years to avoid paying for links and snippets citing stories from Spanish newspapers and other outlets. Google also conducted similar news blocking tests in response to the Australian government attempting to pass a code similar to Bill C-18 which sought to promote negotiations between news publishers and tech giants. Even more recently, Google shut down Google News snippets in Czechia in response to Czech Copyright Act reform seeking to compensate Czech news publishers.

The costs of Bill C-18 to Google and Meta are not insignificant, with the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimating news businesses to receive a total compensation of $329.2 million CAD per annum from digital platforms. Given that both Google and Meta generate upwards of $100 billion USD per annum, the costs of Bill C-18 appear to be a drop in the bucket for the tech giants. However, the backlash from Google may be due to a lack of input from the Parliamentary Budget Officer as to how this figure was calculated. Parliament consulted the Australian Communication and Media Authority to learn more about its Bill-C18-like legislation implementation in Australia, so the estimates may have been based on Australian data.

Google’s news blocking test in Canada illustrates that the reality of Bill C-18 may go against its very purpose by disincentivizing digital platforms to link to news materials. This will not only limit access to online news content in Canada, but, more significantly, will further drive the losses suffered by Canada’s news media industry. Since 2008, more than 450 news outlets in Canada have closed, with 64 closures in the past two years. With the second reading of Bill C-18 now in progress at the Senate, Parliament may need to reconsider its legislative approach to avoid further backlash from Google and Meta.