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What is Bill C-18, and how do I know if Google is blocking my news content?

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Google has temporarily blocked some Canadian users from viewing news content.

The company says the move is a response to the Liberal government's proposed Online News Act, or Bill C-18, which would require internet giants to compensate Canadian media companies for making news content available on their platforms.

WHAT IS BILL C-18?

First tabled in June 2022, Bill C-18 would essentially force companies like Google and Meta, which owns Facebook, to negotiate deals to pay Canadian media companies for the content they link to and preview on their websites and platforms.

"The Bill introduces a new bargaining framework intended to support news businesses to secure fair compensation when their news content is made available by dominant digital news intermediaries and generates economic gain," an explanatory note from the government says. "It seeks to support balanced negotiations between the businesses that operate dominant digital news intermediaries and the businesses responsible for the news outlets that produce this news content."

The bill passed in the House of Commons in December and will soon be studied by the Senate. In its current version, failure to comply could result in fines as high as $10 million for a first violation.

"Canadians need to have access to quality, fact-based news at the local and national levels, and that’s why we introduced the Online News Act," a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez told CTVNews.ca. "Tech giants need to be more transparent and accountable to Canadians.”

WHY IS GOOGLE BLOCKING NEWS CONTENT?

According to Google, the company is testing ways to comply with new rules proposed in Bill C-18.

"We’re briefly testing potential product responses to Bill C-18 that impact a very small percentage of Canadian users," a Google spokesperson told CTVNews.ca "We run thousands of tests each year to assess any potential changes to Search."

The test affects Google's ubiquitous search engine as well as Android device news feeds. Such tests, Google says, do not always result in permanent changes.

"We’ve been fully transparent about our concern that C-18 is overly broad and, if unchanged, could impact products Canadians use and rely on every day," the spokesperson added. "We remain committed to supporting a sustainable future for news in Canada and offering solutions that fix Bill C-18."

The company voiced its opposition to the proposed legislation in an October appearance before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which was studying the bill. Instead of negotiating with Canadian media companies, Google has proposed contributing to a fund that would pay them indirectly. The company has also expressed concerns that the proposed law would favour larger outlets over smaller ones, and that it does not require media companies to adhere to basic journalistic standards, which could "lead to the proliferation of misinformation and clickbait."

"We do not think that these measures are in the interests of Canadians, nor are they an effective response to the unique challenges facing Canadian news publishers," Google Canada vice-president and country managing director Sabrina Geremia said in a November 2022 blog post. "As currently written, this legislation won’t strengthen or sustain the Canadian news ecosystem and will make it harder for Canadians to find and share authoritative news online."

HOW DO I KNOW IF THIS IMPACTS ME?

Google says less than four per cent of its Canadian users are affected by the test – not an insignificant number, considering Google's search engine enjoys an approximately 90 per cent market share in the country.

To find out if you're one of them, simply open the Google search engine, type in a Canadian-themed word like "Trudeau" or "Ottawa" and then click on Google's "News" tab. If you see stories by Canadian media outlets like CTV News, your account is probably not affected. If you're mostly seeing news sources from the U.S. and elsewhere, you're likely among the four per cent.

HOW ARE CANADIANS REACTING?

Facebook's parent company, Meta, previously issued a similar warning about blocking news content in Canada. When a related law took effect in Australia in 2021, Facebook briefly shut down news feeds in the country.

"It’s disappointing to hear that Google seems to be borrowing from Facebook’s playbook," the spokesperson for Canada's heritage minister said. "This didn’t work in Australia, and it won’t work here because Canadians won’t be intimidated. At the end of the day, all we’re asking the tech giants to do is compensate journalists when they use their work."

Tech analyst Carmi Levy calls Google's actions "outrageous."

"Google is playing the bully, trying to sort of push back on Ottawa because this new law, Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is something that will threaten its core business," Levy told CTV News. "It'll make less money because of it; it'll have to finally pay media platforms for the content that it then takes and distributes on its own platform and makes money off it through ads. So, the free ride is over, Google isn't happy, and this is why they're doing that."

Andrew Sullivan is president and CEO of the Internet Society, a global non-profit that advocates for an open and globally connected internet. In a February 2023 impact assessment paper, Sullivan and the group argued that Bill C-18 will ultimately harm the internet and restrict the growth of the digital economy. He says blocking news content is "one near-sure way to comply with C-18."

"Responsible network operators test out features like this all the time in order to make sure they work as expected," Sullivan told CTVNews.ca. "It is a shame that the Online News Act attempts to make Canada choose between full access to the whole Internet, and finding some way to support some news businesses in Canada. If passed, it will be a force for splintering the internet, and that will not be good for anyone."

With files from the Canadian Press

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