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'No concessions' St-Onge says in $100M a year news deal with Google

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The Canadian government has reached a deal with Google over the Online News Act that will see the tech giant pay $100 million annually to publishers, and continue to allow access to Canadian news content on its platform.

Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge announced the "historic development" regarding the implementation of Bill C-18 on Wednesday, after the tech giant had threatened to block news on its platform when the contentious new rules come into effect next month.

"We have found a path forward to answer Google's questions about their process and the Act. Google wanted certainty about the amount of compensation it would have to pay to Canadian news outlets," St-Onge said, backed by Liberal MPs in the House of Commons foyer.

"Many doubted that we would be successful, but I was confident that we would find a way to address Google's concerns and make sure that Canadians would have access to news in Canada on their platform," she said, insisting there were "absolutely no concessions" made on the government's part.

The federal government says this financial support will be indexed to inflation, and rolled out to "a wide range of news businesses across the country, including independent news businesses and those from Indigenous and official-language minority communities."

Google will also be able to work with a single collective to distribute this money to "all interested eligible news businesses," based on the number of full-time equivalent journalists they employ.

So far, little has been revealed about what, if any, regulatory adjustments the federal government will be making, with Canadian Heritage indicating that it is unable to release details about the finalized regulations until they are approved by the Treasury Board prior to the Act coming into effect.

St-Onge said Canada reserves the right to reopen the regulations if better agreements are struck in other countries, but for now what's been agreed to "will establish a fairer commercial relationship between digital platforms and in journalism and Canada."

"Following extensive discussions, we are pleased that the Government of Canada has committed to addressing our core issues with Bill C-18, which included the need for a streamlined path to an exemption at a clear commitment threshold," said President of Global Affairs at Google and Alphabet Kent Walker in a statement.

"While we work with the government through the exemption process based on the regulations that will be published shortly, we will continue sending valuable traffic to Canadian publishers," Walker said.

TRUDEAU CALLS OUT META 

Bill C-18, or the Online News Act, lays out a framework that would require digital giants Google and Meta to develop agreements with Canadian news sites to provide them with compensation for hosting their journalistic content on their platforms.

When the bill passed in June, Both Google and Meta had taken the position that rather than compensating media organizations, they'd be blocking Canadian news from their platforms.

Meta made good on this threat this summer, and that company continues to block content from Canadian news platforms on Facebook and Instagram, despite political and public pressure to reverse course. 

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came out swinging against Meta – right now the only other company that meets the threshold to be eligible under the Online News Act – over its decision to pull news access rather than pay for it.

"Unfortunately, Meta continues to complete abdicate any responsibility towards democratic institutions and even stability, but we’re going to continue to work positively in those areas," Trudeau said.

Reacting to Wednesday's developments, Meta said the federal regulatory process related to the Online News Act remains "not equipped" to adjust the core elements of the legislation they've long-viewed as "unworkable."

"Unlike search engines, we do not proactively pull news from the internet to place in our users' feeds and we have long been clear that the only way we can reasonably comply with the Online News Act is by ending news availability for people in Canada," said an unnamed Meta spokesperson in a statement emailed to CTV News. 

WHAT WERE GOOGLE'S CONCERNS?

In advance of this deal, Google had indicated that barring adjustments to the proposed federal regulations underpinning the new rules, the search giant would follow Meta's lead and remove links to Canadian stories from its Search and other products when the legislation comes into effect on Dec. 19.

The tech giant had voiced concern about "serious structural issues with C-18 that regrettably were not dealt with during the legislative process," and has called the bill a "link tax" that "breaks the way the web and search engines have worked for more than 30 years," and may expose them to "uncapped financial liability."

According to The Canadian Press, citing a Canadian Heritage Department official, the final regulations will also address Google's concern around the rules setting up linking to news sites as the basis for payment by clarifying that Google's now-secured payment is about helping publishers and not for linking to news.

Alongside this deal, Canadian Heritage said Google will continue to make programs such as training and business development tools available and will carry on with its support for non-profit journalism projects, while offering assurances "Canadian news businesses will continue to be treated commensurately with their global peers." 

Earlier this year the federal government had put an estimated price tag on how much Google would have to spend – $172 million – in annual compensation to meet the proposed exemption criteria, a figure the tech giant disputed.

St-Onge took over the contentious file from her predecessor and the bill's sponsor Pablo Rodriguez following a July cabinet shuffle, seeing her take the lead in recent months on the online news negotiations with platforms.

On Wednesday she thanked her predecessor for his work on the file, and said this deal was an example of how under the "viable" Online News Act, Canadian outlets are "expected to see substantial financial support."

"For more than a decade, news organizations have been disrupted by the arrival of large digital platforms like Google. In Canada, nearly 500 media outlets have closed their doors… All over the world, governments have set up systems to try to establish a more level playing field between tech giants and news organizations, which are essential in our democracies," St-Onge said. 

While the minister is viewing the deal as a win for Canadian news outlets by establishing funding that wasn't already on offer, Canadian media advocacy group Friends' said it "will not deliver the kind of support to Canadian journalism that we originally hoped for."

"We will be looking to the regulations to ensure that smaller, independent, and equity-seeking media groups are assured access to funding. Since this deal confirms that The Online News Act will not be a panacea for protecting Canadian journalism, other tools to provide support for news must be put in place," said Friends' executive director Marla Boltman in a statement.

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) said it was "relieved" to learn about this agreement averting any further Google news blocking, and is hopeful that it "establishes the right precedent for other digital platforms that make use of Canadian news content."

"We are glad to know that Canadians will be able to continue to access news through Google," said CAB president Kevin Desjardins. "We look forward to continuing to engage with the Government to ensure an equitable funding model for Canadian newsrooms." 

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