Google tests blocking of news sites in response to Canada’s online news bill

Google says it is blocking some Canadian users from viewing news content in response to the Liberal government’s controversial online news bill.Michel Euler/The Associated Press

Google is testing ways of blocking Canadians’ access to news websites in response to the federal government’s online news bill, which would force the company and other tech giants to compensate news organizations for using their work.

The restricted access to global and Canadian news sites, which began earlier this month, will continue for five weeks, according to Google spokesman Shay Purdy.

Mr. Purdy said Google is “briefly testing product responses” to the bill, and that the tests will affect less than 4 per cent of Canadians using the search engine. “We run thousands of tests each year to assess any potential changes to Search,” he added.

But the office of federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez sharply condemned the move, saying Canadians won’t be intimidated by the tactic.

Laura Scaffidi, a spokeswoman for Mr. Rodriguez, accused Google of imitating Facebook, which in October said it would not rule out blocking Canadians’ access to news if the online news legislation, known as Bill C-18, passes without changes.

In Australia, in 2021, Facebook temporarily blocked access to news on its platforms in response to a similar law. Australians woke up to find that Facebook pages with local and world news sites were unavailable.

The platform lifted the ban days later, after an Australian minister held talks with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, and agreed to make amendments to the bill.

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

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, a member of the Commons heritage committee, which scrutinized Bill C-18, said Google is attempting to “intimidate Canadians,” and that the tactic would backfire.

“As opposed to what Google hopes to achieve here, my hope is that it has the opposite effect and makes Canadians realize why social media giants need government scrutiny and reasonable regulation,” he said.

“In the same way Australians would not allow themselves to be intimidated and threatened by social media giants, nor will we.”

Google has warned that the bill, as worded, could lead to a “link tax,” which would force it to pay news organizations for links to articles. It has also warned that Bill C-18 could force it to subsidize non-authoritative or biased news sources.

The company’s tests mean that some Canadians are finding their normal ways of searching for news on Canadian and foreign sites disrupted.

“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,” Google’s Mr. Purdy said. “We remain committed to supporting a sustainable future for news in Canada and offering solutions that fix Bill C-18.”

The online news bill, which has passed through committee in the Commons, is currently being considered in the Senate.

It would make Facebook and Google enter into agreements with news organizations, including broadcasters and community radio stations, to pay them for using their work.

Some Canadian news organizations, including The Globe and Mail, have already made compensation agreements with big tech platforms.

Mr. Housefather said the bill is a way of supporting Canada’s news industry, which has seen huge amounts of advertising revenue migrate to the platforms.

“There has been a significant decline in ad revenue going to Canadian newspapers, and almost all of it goes to Meta and Google,” Mr. Housefather said. “C-18 is an attempt to level the playing field and protect Canadian journalism.”

Conservative MPs on the Commons heritage committee expressed concern that the bill would lead to the CBC getting the lion’s share of compensation from Google and Facebook, while a community newspaper with only one reporter might not qualify under the scheme.

With a report from the Canadian Press