Google accused of burying articles and ‘astroturfing’ in latest Heritage Committee session

Yesterday, Google returned for another two-hour long round of questioning from the Canadian Heritage committee regarding its response to Bill C-18.

The company’s global affairs president, Kent Walker, and vice president of Google News, Richard Gingras, finally presented themselves to the Committee, after leaving Google’s country manager, Sabrina Geremiah, alone to battle it out at the initial, rather chaotic session.

The issue at stake is Google’s five-week national test, carried out in February in response to Bill C-18, which temporarily limited access to news content for a randomly selected 3.3 per cent of its Canadian users.

The discussion was far more productive than what we witnessed last time, unimpeded by the complaints, frustrations, and political posturing of committee members or Google’s unclear responses.

The executives re-affirmed their concerns with Bill C-18, with Gingras stating, “Google News, like Google Search, is a new standard that publishers don’t pay to be on. We send millions of visitors to their sites for free. Google News costs us millions to operate, yet it delivers zero revenue. If we must pay publishers simply for linking to their sites, making us lose money with every click, it would be reasonable for us or any business to reconsider why we would continue to do so.”

But they maintained that no final business decision has been taken as yet.

While the outcome of the test, Gingras said, cannot be disclosed “for security reasons”, he revealed that the test confirmed that news queries only accounted for 2 per cent of all Google search queries, meaning that 98 per cent of users carrying out non-news queries were unaffected by the test.

The witnesses instead proposed the idea of setting up a fund as an alternative to Bill C-18, which, unsurprisingly, garnered the skepticism of the committee members.

“Proceeds from this fund would be distributed consistently with clear criteria governed by an independent board of experts, in line with the approach already adopted by Canada through its journalism tax credit,” explained Walker. “This is not the path that C-18 is currently on, but it’s not too late.”

The witnesses also revealed that they have already entered into licensing agreements with a “range of publications going from the very large, such as the Globe and Mail, to news organizations covering Yellowknife,” in an aim to encourage quality journalism, as it did with Google News Showcase program, announced in 2021.

The fact that Google would determine, through this fund, what quality journalism is, also intrigued some committee members, but the witnesses maintained, “it’s not about quality, it is more about intent. We cannot judge quality and do not judge quality,” adding that the concern with Bill C-18’s definition of eligible news businesses is extremely broad, such that quality local journalism will end up lagging behind poor quality, clickbaity journalism. 

Google did not reveal how much it intends to inject in this fund, despite repeated questioning from one committee member. 

The witnesses also maintained that none of the publishers with which Google has entered into agreements will be algorithmically favoured, nor were they exempted from the national test.

But the debate rose in tension when one committee member accused Google of burying articles not in favour of its image, which Google denied.

Conservative MP Martin Shields said, “When we went to Google to find that [Globe and Mail story], it wasn’t there. It was on the competitor’s site, and you had buried it way down. And in fact, it never did come up on Google.”

The article Shields is referring to is, in fact, a New York Times article, titled “Google devises radical search changes to beat back AI rivals“, that the Globe and Mail appears to have licensed for their print edition, Google clarified to ITWC.

That article was initially titled “Google devises radical search changes to stay on top“, so users were potentially searching for an old title and the wrong publication.

The article with the original title, yet continues to appear on PressReader as a Globe and Mail article.

Further, Liberal MP Chris Bittle questioned the witnesses on Google’s  lobbying practices  and accused the company of astroturfing – using front organizations to advocate for its interests without clear disclosure – after similar concerns were raised by EU lawmakers. 

Bittle revealed that Walker and Gingras were in Ottawa lobbying Parliamentarians, but both admitted that they are not registered to lobby with the Lobbying Commissioner.

Walker explained that they were not astroturfing in the first place, but rather were engaged in “efforts to allow a variety of stakeholders who had their own concerns about legislation to have a seat at the table and to have a voice in a parliamentary conversation.” He added that it is in the interests of, for instance, YouTube creators or small publishers to advocate against Bill C-18.

To which Bittle interjected, “If it is in their interests, then why are you paying them?”. He then went on to repeatedly demand a list of names of entities or individuals and organizations that Google allegedly paid to lobby against the Canadian legislation, but Walker dodged the request, maintaining that “we[Google] is neither astroturfing or hiding and is compliant with lobbying rules in Canada.”

Updated 4/24/2023-3.33 PM with clarification on the allegedly buried article

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Ashee Pamma
Ashee Pamma
Ashee is a writer for ITWC. She completed her degree in Communication and Media Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. She hopes to become a columnist after further studies in Journalism. You can email her at [email protected]

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