Google and Facebook, already in hot water for their problems with spreading disinformation, have doubled down by manufacturing some tailor-made disinformation of their own
This fall, Canada’s local news publishers, big and small, came together to urge the federal government — and MPs of all parties — to join with democracies around the world in fighting Google and Facebook’s relentless attacks against local news.
The two web giants use their monopoly positions to deny local newspapers the revenues — primarily from advertising — that pay for real journalism. We outlined a list of comprehensive actions that are needed to loosen this unfair market stranglehold in an aptly named report: “Levelling the Digital Playing Field.”
Since then, Google and Facebook, already in hot water for their problems with spreading disinformation, have doubled down by manufacturing some tailor-made disinformation of their own.
Recently, as part of their high-priced global lobby campaign to fight any restraints on their wealth and power, Google wrote to every MP in Ottawa.
We won’t dwell on the most egregious misrepresentations in the letter; for example, we have never accused Google of “stealing” content, as it claims. It also states that, “Not all publishers agree with News Media Canada”; in fact, we represent the publishers of the daily, regional, community and ethnocultural news publications that account for more than 90 per cent of news media readership in Canada.
Instead, we will focus on the substantive claims made by Google. They are as important for what they omit, as what they purport.
Google claims that it did not cause “the disruption of the newspaper business model,” implying that what it dismissively refers to as “legacy media” has not kept up with changing technology. In fact, Canadian newspaper publishers, large and small, have been in the forefront of adapting to the digital world since the introduction of the internet in the 1990s.
For example, La Presse transformed its news business with the development of mobile and desktop digital products as well as a free tablet edition (LaPresse+), which ultimately replaced all printed products. In smaller, non-urban markets, independent publishers like the Neepawa Banner & Press and Island Press Inc. have developed podcasts and digital video series to complement their print editions, in addition to PDF replicas, website e-editions and mobile apps.
Google also claims that it “does not earn meaningful revenues from news.” We will leave it to you to decide what constitutes “meaningful revenues” for a company that earned more than C$200 billion in revenues in 2019, and is setting new revenue records in 2020: raking in almost $60 billion in revenues in the third quarter alone.
Google also neglects to acknowledge in its letter that it and its fellow internet monopoly, Facebook, combined collect 80 per cent of all online advertising revenues in Canada.
Google’s omissions of facts and context are deliberate — and deliberately misleading. So are claims such as “Google does not set ad prices … (they) are driven by real time auctions.” Google uses its immense size and wealth and its uncontested market domination to lay claim to the lion’s share of all advertising. By any measure, this is an abuse of power.
Google has a monopoly over every step of buying and selling digital advertising. Since 2001, Google has aggressively acquired digital display advertising technology companies that posed any threat. Former competitors have been integrated into its global ecosystem. Google now controls and derives revenue from every aspect of the digital advertising supply chain for publishers and advertisers.
Google technology powers the ad systems used to display ads on publisher websites; is used to offer those placements to the market for purchase (bidding); is the base for the systems used in bidding on the placement of those ads; is used for targeting consumers and tracking how those ads perform; and is used to verify the deliverability of those ads.
There is no aspect of digital advertising that Google does not touch. This, coupled with its dominance as a search engine, where people routinely go to find news stories, makes it a clear monopoly. Google is the auction, the auctioneer, the product, the buyer and the seller.
The letter MPs received from Google is part of a stepped-up effort on the tech giant’s part to fight back against what is a growing rejection of its abuse of power in democracies around the world. The alarm we raised in our report has been subsequently echoed in even more recent reports in the United States Senate and the British House of Lords.
Google would have you believe that not only is News Media Canada wrong, but so too are our country’s closest allies — the United States and the United Kingdom.
Another close ally, Australia, is taking decisive action to ensure a fair online market for media in that country. We believe — given our similar legal and federal political systems, and our similar cultures and economies — that same approach would work here in Canada. That is the key recommendation of our report. We also believe this solution would work well in Canada because it requires no government funding or new or increased taxes or user fees.
All it requires is for our MPs to exercise their responsibility to protect Canadians and Canadian businesses of all sizes from the predatory and destructive practices of a powerful monopoly, and to ensure fair competition.
Interests as powerful as Google and Facebook won’t allow this to happen without a fight. Based on their behaviour in other jurisdictions, we can expect bare-knuckled lobbying and outright threats will follow. That has certainly been the case in Australia and Europe, for example.
We will continue to champion the interests of local news and the communities that we serve across Canada. We agree with one sentence in Google’s letter: “No, the news business is not the same as it was two decades ago. Innovative Canadians are making it better.”
These are the women and men in newsrooms across Canada. Real journalists, reporting real news and using new, innovative ways of reaching Canadians. We will continue to fight for them and their communities, even in the face of powerful multinationals that produce no journalism and seek to strip the profits from the work of others.
We hope that, by taking the legislative action we outlined in our report, MPs from all parties and all regions in Canada will stand with us.