Getty Images Google limits access to news on its search engine to less than 4% of its Canadian users.
Senior Google executives disappointed federal elected members of a parliamentary committee on Friday by refusing to answer numerous questions relating to the blocking of news sites on the search engine for some Canadian Internet users.< /p>
“I have a hard time with your answers. Yet these are very clear questions! I want that noted,” ranted Liberal MP Hedy Fry, the parliamentary committee chair of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (CHPC).
Google Canada Vice-President and National Director Sabrina Geremia repeatedly told a parliamentary committee on Friday that part of the country's internet users don't see news articles in their Google search of a “product test”. Not, she says, a permanent “product decision.”
That information was hammered home regardless of the many questions asked by elected officials from all parties. The Google representative also declined to explain why her company did not provide the requested documents. At one point, deputies demanded that Ms. Geremia swear an oath to tell only the truth.
The parliamentary committee, for example, demanded that it obtain all internal communications related to its plan to limit articles in search results in Canada, such as emails, as well as a list of the media affected. The committee only received information publicly available on the company's website.
The multinational company has been conducting this experiment since February 9 with approximately 4% of randomly selected Canadian users. This is a reaction to Bill C-18, currently before the Canadian parliament, which aims to share advertising revenues between web giants and news media.
< p>Liberal MP Anthony Housefather calculated that about 1.2 million Canadians no longer see news sites when they do a keyword search on Google. This estimate was not disputed by the company's representative. Ms. Geremia would not say on Friday if these Internet users are notified, as asked by Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux.
For a price on links
In their presentation, Google Canada officials claimed, among other things, that Bill C-18 “sets a price for free links to web pages,” which the company opposes. Instead, Google deems the links it generates to represent “free traffic” to media sites. In 2022, the search engine redirected people to media sites 3.6 billion times, worth it estimates at $250 million.
“Require payment based on links encourage cheap clickbait, not quality journalism,” reads Google's official response uploaded Friday.
Bloc member Martin Champoux objected to this interpretation, recalling that his party passed an amendment so that all media companies covered by this law must at least subscribe to a code of conduct. Google's public policy manager, Jason Kee, countered that sections of the law fall outside this rule, based on his reading.
With C-18, the government's intention is above all to force Google and Facebook to negotiate with press companies for a sharing of advertising revenues, failing which the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) would act as an arbiter between the parts. This is when there could, in theory, be a price set on a link to a news page.
< p>Even though the Conservatives proposed amending C-18 on this aspect, its elected committee members were shocked by the actions taken by the multinational. “This is no way to negotiate and I believe it was a mistake on your part,” responded MP Martin Shields.
Australia has passed a bill similar to the one being considered in Canada. Google reacted by threatening to leave the country in 2021 before finally complying with the law.
According to Google, news articles are still very accessible to Canadians, even when targeted by its “test of product”, since Internet users can still consult them on their browser. Google Canada has confirmed to Devoirthat this experiment will end next week. The company also points out that it contributes financially to the business model of many media. In particular, it concluded an agreement with Le Devoir.
The federal parliamentary committee had first subpoenaed executives of Google's parent company in the United States, Alphabet, like its Chairman and CEO Sundar Pichai, and its President of Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer, Kent Walker. These US officials did not show up for the meeting, even though it was possible to join virtually.
“There are going to be consequences,” the New Democratic Party congressman said. Peter Julien on Monday, shortly before a technical problem forced the postponement of the parliamentary committee meeting to Friday.
The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, himself criticized the behavior of the famous search engine in February. “Google would rather prevent Canadians from accessing the news than want to pay journalists for the work they do as professionals. It's really sad,” he said.