No matter how you look at it, Big Tech companies provide news feeds that people around the world put their faith in. In doing so, Canadian policymakers have argued that news publications should be legally compensated for their contributions. Google disagrees, which is why it is removing links to news websites from Canada as soon as the law takes effect. It goes to show how tech companies want to assert themselves in the face of legislation they disagree with.
President of Global Affairs at Google Kent Walker clarifies in a blog post why the company is making the drastic decision to remove several features from Canada. He denounces the so-called “link tax” in the new C-18 law, which no one but Google and Meta would have to pay. It would give uncertainty in the product line and be an unfair tax on “simply” informing Canadian customers.
This is by no means a simple issue. Google is a private company that does not write news itself, but in fact operates as the editor-in-chief of personal news feeds for countless people. Anyone using Android who has ever swiped to the left on the main screen will see the well-known Discover feed. Links to Canadian news sites will be disappearing from there, too.
The reality is that the development of computer technology has resulted chiefly in a small number of major players within certain arenas. For example, in the PC hardware space there are “The Big Three” with Intel, AMD and Nvidia, while in terms of social media we have seen a consolidation of Meta (with Facebook and WhatsApp, among others), Google (with Search, News and YouTube, among others), Twitter, and parties like TikTok, with only a few other participants taking a slice of the pie.
This leads to a dominant position specifically in the delivery of news feeds. News organizations heavily depend on the algorithms of Google News, Google Discover, Facebook and YouTube. Entire careers can now be built on perfecting the discoverability on these platforms. Google also already offers a business model through Google News Showcase where news sites can be paid. However, that works under its own rules: no government has been involved. The debatable point is that Google is more than happy to demand that the other way around; otherwise it will just run away with its own products.
We also see this with AI chatbots like Google Bard being kept out of the EU out of alleged concerns about privacy laws or other policy issues. Meanwhile, Sundar Pichai is a frequent presence in Brussels to help tinker with laws that especially control companies like his.
This is not even necessarily undesirable, by the way: many policymakers will know too little about the matter to make an informed decision. Still, that gives a Big Tech company plenty of opportunity to lobby extensively, resulting in loose legislation.
This is not the first time one of the two largest news feed providers has withdrawn from a country. Google has only been back with News in Spain since mid-2022 after staying away for eight years due to legislation similar to Canada’s C-18 law, which required publications to pay for sharing news pieces on Google’s platform.
Meta wasn’t averse to this either, when Facebook News was shut down in Australia. The tech giant reversed that when it got enough concessions from the government there. The key point here was that pre-existing deals between Meta and news organizations could remain valid. Thus, it stuck to its own rules of the game and not Australia’s.
These two examples clearly show where the solution is: negotiation. After Google or Meta makes such a decision, it eventually expects enough dissatisfaction from the local population because of the missing features to force politicians into action. Thus Big Tech takes advantage of the position of power it has won.
Difficult to dispel
It seems likely that this pattern will continue for some time to come. After all, it is unrealistic to expect overarching legislation anytime soon that would make these companies pay for news worldwide. So what should the solution be?
Ultimately, we cannot help but return to the fact that Google and Meta are the main news suppliers to a significant portion of the world’s population. That leads to a responsibility that private companies bear in other areas. There are already many privacy and security laws that restrict the activities of these parties. Also, the value of Google and Meta to news outlets should not be underestimated. Twenty years ago we might have found a journalistic piece through some generic landing page, but today we rely on suggestions by algorithms.
Recognizing this reality should be central to new legislation. In doing so, Google and Meta must show transparency about how news serves up and how users can modify it. This should go beyond just the ability to block specific topics or websites on the feeds in question. Tinkering with business models is well within the scope of a nation-state’s political system. After all, democratic governments ideally want to satisfy the wishes of their own people (and in this case their own news sites). However, Google and Meta make this practically unworkable from their dominant position. They are difficult to sway, so international legislation may be the solution. That’s just going to take a while.