Google-backed probe an attempt to ‘avoid accountability’, says Ottawa

OTTAWA — A national inquiry commissioned by Google that described Ottawa’s online news bill as flawed and a potential vector for misinformation has been criticized by the federal government as an attempt to « avoid accountability. »

Abacus Data released a report Friday on Canadians’ views on Bill C-18, legislation that would require online platforms like Google and Facebook to share a portion of the revenue they generate by posting content on their sites with the outlets that produce the stories. The bill, known as the Online News Act, is currently being studied by the House of Commons Heritage Committee.

Google’s move to poll Canadians on what it sees as serious pitfalls in the bill is the tech giant’s latest move to oppose Ottawa’s online regulation legislation.

The survey, which was designed by Abacus but paid for by Google Canada, asked Canadians if they were aware of the bill, if they thought the news industry was in trouble and what what they thought of the tech giant’s main concerns with the legislation.

These concerns include Google’s belief that the bill too broadly defines what counts as a “qualifying news business,” that it could artificially inflate the ranking of foreign state-owned media in Google search results. , that it could potentially spread misinformation, and that it subjects platforms to paying a so-called “link tax” for news content to appear in its search results.

« We are concerned that Bill C-18 could negatively impact Canadians’ ability to find and share authoritative news online and unpredictable results for the evolving news ecosystem, » said the Google spokesperson Shay Purdy.

“We believe it is relevant that Canadians broadly share these concerns and want us to work with the government to address them.

The office of Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez hit back at Google after the report was released.

“The Online News Act protects local news. It is not a liaison tax: Canadians pay nothing and no money goes to the government. The Online News Act does not require Google Search to remove or restrict search results. It outlines an objective set of criteria, removed from political decision-making, for determining eligible news outlets,” spokeswoman Laura Scaffidi said.

« We continue to have constructive conversations with Google, as recently as last week, but they continue to pull from their playbook and continue to try to avoid accountability, here and abroad. »

In May, the company published a scathing blog post about C-18 that left the federal government « frustrated and disappointed » with the company.

« Hundreds of newsrooms have closed because the advertising revenue they relied on has gone to the tech giants, » Rodriguez’s office said at the time.

Friday’s report also sparked questions about whether a poll focused on Google’s interpretation of the bill is legitimately in the public interest, said Taylor Owen, co-director of the Media Ecosystem Observatory. of McGill University, which regularly polls Canadians.

« I think it’s completely normal and understandable that Google wants to investigate … (about) the framing of its lobbying against a bill that it considers contrary to its interests, » said Owen, who also advised the federal government on its outstanding online misdeeds. legislation earlier this year.

Google has argued that it helps news publishers by directing billions of visits to their sites each year.

Owen cited a case where the poll found that 70% of Canadians were concerned to learn that the bill, according to Google, would give the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) « unprecedented new powers and extended to regulate all aspects of the Canadian news industry, although these decisions far exceed its expertise as a broadcast regulator.

“If all of this were true, then this could be something interesting. But there are three guesses in there, all of which are being debated,” he said.

Ottawa said Canada’s broadcast regulator would only play an « administrative role » and would not « decide what is or is not news ».

Although the survey clearly indicates that it was paid for by Google Canada, Abacus Data CEO David Coletto told The Star that respondents were told that « the federal government and supporters of the legislation say these concerns are unfounded and can be addressed by the CRTC. »

Despite Google Canada commissioning the survey, the report found that Canadians are extremely divided on who to trust when it comes to the bill and its implications.

Thirty-six percent of Canadians said they trust Google more than the federal government, while 24 percent of respondents trusted Ottawa. The majority of Canadians — 40% — said they didn’t know who deserved their trust the most.

“I think that shows how complicated this problem is,” Coletto said.

The poll also looked at whether Canadians really believe the news industry is at risk of collapsing, with 55% believing the sector to be « financially sound and sustainable » or « financially sound and mostly sustainable. » « .

“The industry is extremely challenged, and has been for several years,” said Paul Deegan, president and CEO of News Media Canada, one of the groups that led lobbying efforts for the project. of law.

(Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star, has also lobbied Ottawa over the bill. Torstar has struck a deal, along with a number of other publishers, to join Google’s News Showcase service.)

Deegan said that while Google’s survey pays more « attention » to the state of journalism in Canada, the web giant still needs to provide « an honest presentation of the facts. »

Google is due to appear before the Commons Heritage Committee on Tuesday and will submit a written brief – including proposed amendments to the bill – after his appearance.

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa journalist who covers federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel


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