Google says it will stop blocking Canadian news links next week following test

OTTAWA — Google will stop blocking news links next week following a five-week test that limited access to news for some Canadian users, the company confirmed Friday.

The test began Feb. 9 and affected users were prevented from seeing news links on Google's search engine and Discover panel on Android phones.

The company has said the test applied to news of all kinds, including content created by Canadian broadcasters and newspapers.

The test will end on March 16.

Google said it was meant to assess the effects of a potential response to Bill C-18, the Liberal government's controversial Online News Act.

"I want to underline that these are just tests. No decisions have been made about product changes. We're simply doing our due diligence in the most responsible way possible," said Jason Kee, public policy manager for Google.

Kee attended a House of Commons heritage committee meeting on Friday via videoconference, alongside the head of Google Canada, Sabrina Geremia. They were summoned by MPs who are studying Google's activities in reaction to the Online News Act.

The executives were also asked to provide internal documents related to Google's decision to block news links — such as internal emails, texts and other messages — but that has not yet happened.

Geremia said Google will continue to work "collaboratively" with the committee.

"They provided documents — but public documents. Not the documents requested by the committee," Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said following the meeting.

He described it as a "very poor performance by Google."

Halfway through the meeting, committee members compelled the two witnesses to swear an oath affirming that they were telling the truth.

"I don't think I've ever seen an example of the witnesses having to be sworn in (in) the middle of the meeting because the committee didn't believe they were being truthful," Housefather said, adding that the committee will continue to press Google for answers.

In her opening speech to the committee, Geremia said that Bill C-18 sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the open web and free flow of information.

The bill would require digital giants to negotiate deals to compensate Canadian media companies for linking to their content.

"C-18 is intended to encourage voluntary agreements with news publishers," Geremia said.

"But the exemption and eligibility criteria have shifted so significantly that it would require subsidies to media companies even if they don't produce news, are not online and we don't link to their content."

Geremia argued that instead of supporting local journalism, the bill would benefit legacy media and broadcasters while incentivizing clickbait content over quality journalism.

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu raised a similar concern, saying the bill could cause misinformation and clickbait to be more prominent on the web.

Google has said it would rather pay Canadian media outlets through a monetary fund than be regulated by the government.

Large Canadian media companies and the federal Liberal government have argued the proposed law would level the playing field for news outlets that compete with tech giants for advertising dollars.

But Google said it is already a major financial supporter of journalism, because the traffic it sends to news sites helps publishers increase their readership and earn money from page views, and because Google licenses news from more than 150 publications across Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2023.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press