Like many people, my daughter is interested in acquiring a hybrid vehicle, to save on gas and to help save the planet. Among the models she has been looking at is the Toyota Prius, so when I saw a review of the 2023 Prius in the Driving section of my local paper, the Victoria Times-Colonist, I thought I would send it to her. I went to Google Search and typed in “Times Colonist Toyota Hybrid” (using the key words from the headline of the review). To my surprise and annoyance, I did not get a link to the review. Instead, I received the following message, or something like it, “No News Coverage Available. Try Again Later”. WTF?
The only explanation I could think of was that I had been caught in Google’s experimental blocking of Canadian news for users in Canada. This test blocking is part of its campaign to resist the intent of Canada’s new Online News Act (Bill C-18) which requires Google (and Meta) to reach agreements with Canadian news providers to compensate them for use of their news content when such content is made available by the platforms. That was the intent of the legislation, modelled on similar legislation introduced in Australia a couple of years ago. However, if the two internet giants decline to negotiate for use of news content, their other option is to ensure that no Canadian news is available on their platforms. This is the route that both Google and Meta have said they will follow. I was learning first-hand what it’s like to be blocked from access to news.
So, what to do? Simple. I immediately clicked on the Bing icon on my phone (which I had downloaded as a backup just in case Google pulled this stunt on me), and voilà, there was the story. Admittedly it was in Press Reader, not my favourite format, but at least I had all the information I needed. Bing also provided a link to the original syndicated review, which had appeared in the Detroit News, as well as the same review in an Automotive Magazine. I was surprised to have received the “no news” message as I had read that those who were victims of Google’s blocking experiment, like communications professional Michael Gendron, were able to tell they were part of the exercise only because the news offered to them was only from non-Canadian, mainly US, sources. So, under Google’s blocking regime, if you want the latest information on the wildfire possibly blocking a major road artery in your local area, and you Google it, you would get only general news about Canadian wildfires sending smoke to blanket US cities. Interestingly, when I tried again a bit later, Google decided to let me access the story I had been seeking, taking me directly to the Times Colonist site. Why all this happened I don’t know, but I do know that I have never not been able to access news stories before on Google, except in China, but there the blocking was done by the Chinese government, not by the platform.
The closest analogy to the current situation in Canada is Australia, where Google threatened to block access to its search function by Australian users. Google’s tactics in Australia were a combination of carrot and stick, as I wrote about here, with Google reaching agreement with some Australian news providers, only to suspend those agreements because it opposed being subject to the Australian News Media Bargaining Code. Then, it threatened to block Google Search for Australian users. The Australian government pushed back against these tactics, but the situation took a turn for the worse for Google when Microsoft announced it would be happy to step into the breach and play ball with Australia. (Google’s Tussle Over Payment for News Content in Australia: Microsoft Scrambles the Cards–With Positive Implications for Canada and Others). This stance taken by another powerful American company also undercut any likelihood that the US government would intervene on Google’s behalf.
With regard to Canada, Google and Meta have been striving to get the US government, in the form of the US Trade Representative (USTR), to intervene regarding C-18, arguing that it violates the new NAFTA, the USMCA/CUSMA. Their lobby group in Washington produced a paper last year when C-18 was still in process arguing that the legislation violated Canadian obligations to provide US companies with “national treatment” (like for like with domestic companies in like circumstances). Their arguments were wrong then, and are still wrong although that hasn’t stopped them from trying through their advocates in Congress to pressure USTR to launch retaliation under the USMCA/CUSMA. Apart from the fact that there is no violation of national treatment under the CUSMA because C-18 does not seek to discriminate in favour of Canadian online platforms that compete with Google and Meta, it is most unlikely that the US government would champion the cause of these two particular US companies given the wide range of US commercial and political interests engaged in the overall Canada-US relationship, the possibility of similar legislation to C-18 passing in the US, and the general unpopularity of the tech giants on Capitol Hill. A good summary of the current status of the issue in Washington was provided recently by the US publication, Inside US Trade. (Full disclosure; I am quoted).
At this stage, no-one knows for sure what will happen regarding Google’s threats to block access to Canadian news. I am still betting on the fact that a compromise is possible and that Google in particular will realize it has more to lose by blocking news in Canada than in coming to a reasonable accommodation with Canadian news providers. If that doesn’t happen and Google follows through on its threat to block news—thereby damaging its reputation internationally not to mention compromising the basis of its algorithms that govern search, based on user requests—then the solution for Canadian users is easy. Go find an alternative. It could be Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, or others. They all work, but Microsoft’s Bing is the other (relatively) big guy on the block. Google, by its own stupidity and cupidity, just reminded me that there is an attractive, valid alternative.
© Hugh Stephens 2023. All Rights Reserved.
P.S. If you are wondering why Microsoft does not face the same choice as Google when it comes to reaching agreement with news content providers or blocking availability of news, it has to do with market dominance–referred to in the legislation as “significant bargaining power”–(as a result of dominating viewership and thus advertising markets), or lack thereof. However, in the case of Australia while Microsoft was in the same position of not being subject to the News Media Bargaining Code, in its announcement it said that should its market share grow to the point that the Code was applicable to it, it would comply with the Code’s requirements because it was important to support professional journalism.