Petulance unbecoming of a tech behemoth?

By: Rob Corbidge, 23 February 2023

a pie in a foil container with a padlock attached to it

Google may be preparing for some punitive action in Canada prior to the potential adoption of a "pay for content" law. 

Canada is under attack by the Americans. Well, some Americans. Americans in the shape of Google, if Google people have passports that is, a transnational letter of marque being a more likely form of ID.

As industry watchers will be aware, Canada is lining up its own payment for content legislation, Bill C-18,  or the Online News Act, along the lines of Australia's groundbreaking  move. This would place the tech giants on the hook for a fairer share of revenue to be paid to publishers, particularly news publishers.

We know that Google, Facebook, et al regard news as a problem child. Likely free of the scrutiny of the elected representatives that are always so troublesome in most jurisdictions they operate, they would drop news altogether, unless all news was about kittens playing in bubbles.

One might assume that an aura of magnanimity might be maintained by Google during the debate in Ottawa, being as it is a tremendously powerful and wealthy business, and dealing with the United States' nearest and dearest neighbour. The proper representations can be made by its army of legal and public affairs advocates and those politicians who agree with its essential position that publishers get a fair deal already.

Natch, it did no such thing and this week seemingly turned off the news spigot  to a number of Canadian outlets. 

One might call it enterprise level petulance. 

Compounding the same was the fact that the "test" was only discovered by accident when The Canadian Press queried some strange search results with Google themselves.

As reported by The Star of Canada: "The test, which began recently, a company source said, will run for approximately five weeks. Google would not discuss the exact changes made to the search engine for Canadians captured within the test.

"The source, who spoke confidentially to discuss the test, confirmed that the test does impact the way Canadian and global news results appear to varying degrees."

The Wall Street Journal reported that a spokeswoman for Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said the country wouldn’t be intimidated by Google’s threats. “All we’re asking the tech giants to do is compensate journalists when they use their work,” the spokeswoman said. “Tech giants need to be more transparent and accountable to Canadians.”

So Google just happened to test its biggest piece of artillery, the "off" button, at around the time the debate on Bill C-18 is starting to be renewed. What a coincidence. 

Facebook/Meta did similar in Australia and it was reported that Google were considering barring access from Down Under entirely. Arguably, Facebook's actions did gain some concessions from the Australian government, but the essential part of the legislation's intent weathered the blackout. Money is flowing. The debate now is how that money should flow lower down the size order of publishers. At least the money is on the right side of the fence now.

Nevertheless, Google's actions in Canada make "Don't Be Evil"  look like the dimly seen hieroglyphs of a lost civilisation. In a market where it's suddenly possible Google might have a search rival forming again in the shape of Bing, they need some friends and opening themselves to accusations of commercial bullying might not be the best path.

Google might cite economic factors as a reason for retaining all its revenue - they have trimmed fat from their bone with recent staff cuts. Yet the publishing industry, and in particular the news publishing industry, has been thinly shaving bone for some time now.