MPs summon top Alphabet/Google executives to explain decision to block news content

A Commons committee is summoning four of Google's top executives to appear after the company started blocking access to some news content last week. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters - image credit)
A Commons committee is summoning four of Google's top executives to appear after the company started blocking access to some news content last week. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters - image credit)

A parliamentary committee is calling four of Google's top executives to appear before it after the company began testing ways it could block news content from searches if Parliament passes the Online News Act.

Also known as Bill C-18, the Online News Act would require digital giants such as Google to negotiate deals to compensate Canadian media companies for republishing content on their platforms.

Liberal MP Chris Bittle's motion, which was passed unanimously by MPs on the Heritage committee Tuesday, also orders Google and its parent company Alphabet to give the committee copies of all documents and messages related to its decision to retaliate over C-18 by Thursday March, 2.

Last week, Google began testing a method for blocking some Canadian users from viewing news content on a temporary basis. Google said the move affected less than four per cent of Canadian users.

The committee says it wants a full list of the Canadian news organizations targeted by the company for blocking.

"It's something we need to look into. It's something that is troubling," Bittle said. "I know we've seen these actions by foreign tech giants around the world and it's important that Canada's Parliament looks into it and that we stand up for Canadians."

The motion summons Kent Walker, Alphabet's president of global affairs and chief legal officer; Richard Gingras, vice president of news at Google; Sabrina Geremia, Google's country manager for Canada; and Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO. The executives must appear before the committee on Monday, March 6.

Anyone invited to appear before a committee can decline, but those summoned must attend or risk being found in contempt of Parliament. The legal force of a committee summons extends only to people who are in Canada.

'Disrespectful' and 'irresponsible'

According to the committee, Geremia, a Canadian, is the only one of the four executives who resides in Canada.

NDP MP Peter Julian told the committee that if Alphabet and Google decline to send their executives, the committee should continue to press the company until it complies.

"This is something that these executives have to respond to," he said. "I think if we start to say we will allow Google to replace the decision-makers with local-based people … we are sending the wrong message.

"Google's actions have been irresponsible. Google's actions amount to censorship and Google's actions are disrespectful of Canadians."

The company said last week that the blocking measure was a test of possible responses to the passage of C-18. The measure applies to its search engine and the Discover feature on Android devices, which carries news and sports stories.

All types of news content are being affected by the test, which will run for about five weeks, the company said. That includes content created by Canadian broadcasters and newspapers.

An Australian law similar to C-18 took effect in March 2021 after talks with the big tech firms led to a brief shutdown of Facebook news feeds in the country. The law has largely worked, a government report said.