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Government has ‘options’ if Facebook, Google pull news content, minister says

The Liberal government could pull ads from Google and Facebook if the tech giants block news on their platforms over Bill C-18

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OTTAWA—The Liberal government could pull its advertising from Google and Facebook if the tech giants follow through and block news content on their platforms in response to the Online News Act, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez indicated Wednesday evening.

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“The government has options,” Rodriguez said during an appearance at the Senate transport and communications committee. “There’s other things we can do. And all options are on the table.”

Pressed by Sen. Paula Simons about what those options are, and whether they include shifting government ad spending to local newspapers over the tech platforms, Rodriguez avoided getting into specifics.

But he said later in the meeting it’s “up to the government to look at all the options, in terms of advertising, in terms of putting new programs in place, in terms of increasing the funding of other programs.”

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Committee chair Sen. Leo Housakos noted the government spent $6.5 million on traditional print advertising last year, in comparison to $11 million on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram.

Rodriguez also warned there would be a “reputational impact” on the platforms if they pull news content, somewhat softer language than that used by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier in the day when he was asked about Meta’s statements that it will block news on Facebook and Instagram if the bill becomes law.

“The fact that these internet giants would rather cut off Canadians’ access to local news than pay their fair share is a real problem, and now they are resorting to bullying tactics to try and get their way. It’s not going to work,” Trudeau said.

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Meta launched tests this week restricting some Canadians from accessing news content on Facebook and Instagram. Google, which has said it’s considering pulling news off platforms like Google Search in response to the bill, ran similar tests earlier this year.

Bill C-18 would force Meta and Google to share revenues with Canadian news publishers by reaching commercial deals (Postmedia, publisher of the National Post, is in favour of the bill.) The two tech companies say their main concern with the legislation is that it would effectively force them to pay for online links.

The bill doesn’t specifically name Google and Meta, but it does apply to companies that “make news content available” and have a “significant bargaining power imbalance” with news businesses. If Google and Meta stop making news content available, the bill would no longer apply.

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Asked by Simons if that happens, whether the government would then go after other platforms such as Bing or TikTok, Rodriguez indicated that wouldn’t be the case. “We said it clearly in the bill, that they have to be a dominant situation… and actually, in the thresholds we’re looking at, there’s only two. That’s Facebook and Google and the rest are way, way far away.”

Earlier in the day Wednesday, a former CRTC chair and vice-chair recommended the government create a fund, potentially modeled on the Canadian Media Fund, instead of the regime the Online News Act sets out. That’s an option Google has previously indicated it would be in favour of.

Peter Menzies and Konrad von Finckenstein suggested in a new paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute that the large digital platforms could contribute a portion of revenues to a Canadian Journalists’ Fund.

The idea is to ensure eligible news businesses receive a contribution from the digital platforms, in which “the contribution is not a fee for linking, but support for journalists from (digital platforms) who, after all, monetize the data obtained from acting as an intermediary for news stories.”

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