OTTAWA — Google is warning that the federal government's online news bill could force it to subsidize non-authoritative or biased news sources, such as the Russian state-sponsored news agency Sputnik.
But the organization representing Canada’s news media industry says the wording of the bill is tight and specifically excludes outlets that promote the interests of an organization.
Google argues the bill's definition of an eligible news source is so broad that non-professional news outlets with two or more journalists in Canada, including those funded by foreign states, could be eligible for payment from tech giants.
The online news bill, modelled on a similar law in Australia, is designed to support Canada's news industry and combat the spread of news from biased or unreliable sources.
The bill, known as C-18 in Parliament, would make tech giants such as Google and Meta pay for reusing news produced by Canadian news organizations.
The proposed legislation would also prevent tech giants penalizing or giving preference to news organizations it has reached agreements with.
But Google says this could affect the way it ranks news on its search engine and moderates content.
After the war in Ukraine began, it began limiting the visibility of state-controlled Russian media organization RT, including on the Google News search tool.
Lauren Skelly, a spokeswoman for Google, said the search engine could face "the imposition of massive fines for presenting the most useful and reliable content to Canadians and enforcing our own policies.”
Skelly said the tech giant supports the central aim of the bill but is concerned the legislation, as drafted, could have unintended consequences, including making it pay news businesses that don't meet journalistic standards.
This could potentially include two people who set up a digital news organization from their basement, foreign state-sponsored news groups with a bureau in Canada or news outlets with a far-left or far-right bias.
“We have to believe this isn’t an outcome policymakers intended and hope to work with them to address these concerns," Skelly said.
“The legislation as written uses an extremely broad definition for eligible news businesses and ‘undue preference’ provisions that, when put into practice, could result in mandatory payment for content that doesn’t meet basic journalistic standards."
But the president of News Media Canada, which represents the country’s news media industry, said the proposed law is worded carefully.
"This is very good legislation that specifically excludes news outlets that promote the interests of an organization as opposed to producing original news content of general interest," said Paul Deegan.
"The bill will allow many smaller publishers to come together and negotiate content licensing agreements with big tech firms. We urge parliamentarians of all parties to work together and pass this urgently needed legislation before the summer recess.”
Canadian Heritage said in a statement that "it is not the role of the government to decide what is and isn't online news."
"There is an objective set of criteria, removed from political decision-making, to determine qualifying news organizations. A free and independent press is essential to democracy," it said.
When it announced Bill C-18, the federal government said the legislation will ensure Canadians have access to quality, fact-based news at a time of rising disinformation and public mistrust.
The broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, will be given the job of designating what qualifies as a news organization.
The bill says to qualify, a news group would have to be designated as a Canadian journalism organization under the Income Tax Act or produce news content primarily on matters of general interest, and operate and employ two or more journalists in Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2022.
Meta funds a fellowship that supports journalism positions at The Canadian Press.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press