The federal government and Google have reached an agreement after months of fraught negotiations over the Online News Act, with the tech giant agreeing to pay $100-million a year to Canadian news organizations.
The deal heads off Google’s threat to block Canadians’ ability to search for news on the platform.
Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge, in announcing the agreement on Wednesday, said the government had made “absolutely no concessions” to Google. The company said, however, that Ottawa had met its core demands, including reducing the overall amount it will have to pay the news industry and allowing the company to pay into a type of fund rather than make individual payments to each news outlet.
Google had advocated for such a fund while the Online News Act, also known as Bill C-18, was being discussed in parliamentary committees.
Under the agreement, Google will pay $100-million a year, indexed to inflation, which will be distributed to eligible news businesses based on the number of full-time journalists they employ. Google will continue to make training and other resources available to Canadian news organizations on top of its annual cash injection.
In its proposed regulations earlier this year, the Heritage Department said Google would have to pay at least $172-million a year to be exempt from regulation by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which will oversee the act.
The Online News Act, which gained royal assent in June and comes into effect on Dec. 19, is designed to support the news industry by requiring large online tech companies to pay Canadian media outlets for posting their journalism.
Wednesday’s announcement of an agreement was welcomed by the news industry, which has seen advertising revenue migrate to tech giants, leading to the closing of newsrooms across the country.
The Canadian Association of Broadcasters said it “is relieved to learn of an agreement that will avert any further blocking of online news from Canadians.”
“We are glad to know that Canadians will be able to continue to access news through Google,” said the association’s president, Kevin Desjardins.
The deal ends a tense standoff between Ottawa and Google, which threatened to block Canadians’ ability to search for news on its platform unless the government changed how the legislation would apply to it.
In February, Google carried out tests preventing about one million Canadians from finding news on the search engine. The move was criticized by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former heritage minister Pablo Rodriguez, who shepherded the legislation through Parliament in the face of opposition from the Conservatives.
Earlier this year, Meta blocked Canadians’ ability to access news on both Facebook and Instagram in response to Bill C-18, so that the bill would not apply to them.
Mr. Trudeau told journalists in Parliament Wednesday that it is “very good news that after months of holding strong, of demonstrating our commitment to local journalism, strong independent journalists are getting paid for their work.”
Ms. St-Onge had expressed optimism that the tech giants’ concerns could be addressed through regulations, and resisted pressure, including from Meta, to bring the Online News Act back to Parliament for changes.
In recent weeks, Ms. St-Onge and Google’s U.S. executives, including Kent Walker, president of Global Affairs, have been holding intense talks. In Ottawa, there have been further negotiations on the regulations between Heritage Department officials and Google’s Canadian team.
“We thank the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pascale St-Onge, for acknowledging our concerns and deeply engaging in a series of productive meetings about how they might be addressed,” Mr. Walker said in a statement.
Paul Deegan, president and chief executive officer of News Media Canada, which represents the news industry including The Globe and Mail, praised Googleand the government for striking a deal, but said the impact “is dependent on the final regulations, which are essential to ensuring our publishers receive fair market value for their news content.
He also thanked Ms. St-Onge, and commended Google “for their good faith, socially responsible approach.”
Under the agreement, Google will have to support a wide range of news organizations, including local papers, broadcasters and Indigenous and francophone news groups.
Critics of the act, including the Conservatives, and members of the news industry have warned that the publicly funded CBC stands to gain the lion’s share of money from the fund if it is to be distributed based on the number of full-time journalists employed.
Speaking to journalists in Parliament Wednesday, Ms. St-Onge suggested she may address concerns about the CBC gaining the biggest portion of money in the final regulations on the bill.
“We heard the comments from the news sector about their preoccupations around CBC-Radio-Canada having a lot of journalists in Canada and we took that into consideration in the final regulations that will be published a few days before the law comes into effect, which is on Dec. 19,” she said.
CBC-Radio-Canada said in a statement it is “very pleased that the federal government has been able to reach an agreement with Google to support journalism in Canada.”
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s executive director Marla Boltman said although “this deal will provide a much-needed cash injection into the Canadian news media sector, 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,” she said.
Professor Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet law, said “it is good news that there is an agreement given that the alternative would be bad for everyone – news outlets, Canadians and Google.”
He said the deal is very similar to what Google offered a year ago.
Google had warned it would block the ability to search for news because Bill C-18, it said, would lead to uncapped financial liabilities.
The bill would require tech giants to support the Canadian news industry by negotiating licensing deals involving payment for the use of journalists’ work. The measures could inject more than $100-million a year into newspapers and broadcasters, as well as digital news services.
Meta is strongly opposed to the legislation and has withdrawn news from Facebook and Instagram.
The deal, which includes clarification of how the bill would apply through regulations, comes just weeks before the bill comes into force on Dec. 19.
The Globe and Mail, November 29, 2023