Tackling Big Tech: Are Canadians going to allow 'Big Tech' to determine our future?

Why should we let Google and Facebook decide which news is valuable to us, the public?

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This is the first in a series of articles about how Canada should navigate regulating technology companies.

By Jessica Bay

Canada is on the edge of a precipice. We have the opportunity to stand up for ourselves on the global stage and protect our virtual rights or we can allow “Big Tech” to determine our future. In Australia, Google and Facebook are fighting the government’s attempts to level the playing field for their own news media outlets and the battle is very likely coming to Canada next as we debate new mandatory fees for these corporations.

The Canadian government needs to stand firm in the face of this corporate bullying and pass strong legislation that protects Canadian industry and interests to ensure that, unlike Australia, we aren’t?threatened by Google with the loss of our go-to search engine?and some of our favourite social media platforms.

The?negotiations in Australia centre around new regulations that would see technology giants like Google and Facebook pay media outlets for news that is shared on their platforms. The Australian government wants to address the power imbalance between companies like Google and the much smaller news organizations.

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Canadian government needs to stand firm in the face of this corporate bullying

The Australian deal sets out guidelines for negotiations between Google/Facebook and media outlets for paying those outlets to link to their content on Google and Facebook. The Australian government has also taken a hardline approach regarding those contract negotiations by setting up an independent contract arbitrator to move disputes through the system much more quickly than the court process to ensure the payment process can begin as quickly and as equitably as possible.

Google and Facebook argue that Australia’s legislation will limit their ability to simply link other sites, but these platforms do much more than link to news articles. Google provides a preview of the article and background information on the topic meaning that many users feel no need to click through to the actual news site to read the full story. With no click-through, the media outlet loses out on advertising dollars that keep journalism running.

Unlike Australia, France?instigated?a deal?with?Google and its media outlets?where?they?use the Google’s own criteria to determine payouts: media outlets are paid based on contribution to general discussion, publication volume and audience size.

A technician passes by a Google logo on the opening day of a new Google office in Berlin, on Jan. 22, 2019. Photo by TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

While other EU members may follow suit, a similar agreement here would compromise Canada’s digital environment and it sets a dangerous precedent for other national and multinational tech?corporations looking to fight?government regulation. Why should we let Google/Facebook decide which news is valuable to us, the public? Corporate platforms like Google and Facebook are interested in making money so their algorithms and business practices are set up to favour anything that increases traffic and ad revenue; increasingly, this has been extremist material on social media.

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Favouring news media that gets clicks and drives traffic to corporate platforms, and choosing to pay based on this formula, has the potential to bury voices that are already limited in reach and, in Canada, could lead to even more American media influence due to their larger reach.

Google and Facebook together hold an 80 per cent share of the online advertising market in Canada according to the?Canadian Media Concentration Research Project’s 2020 report. Google’s revenue in Canada in 2019 was $4.8 billion and they had a 50 per cent share of the online advertising market alone as well as a staggering 92 per cent of the search market.

Facebook, meanwhile, had 21.5 million Canadian users in 2019 over their three major services (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) and earned $2.6 billion in revenue in Canada that year. There is no doubt that Canadians have become reliant on these tech companies. That does not mean we should allow them to determine the direction of our telecommunications strategy.

Google and Facebook are squabbling over being regulated to pay for content that earns them advertising revenue in a market that they dominate when they are essentially double-dipping here. Not only do they receive the benefit of user hits on their own ad-heavy sites when users are looking for news stories, but they also?gather our individual user information?as we move around their platforms and beyond to various websites.

Once they’ve gathered our digital footprint, they can use it to better market to us themselves while also?selling it?to other companies for a profit. While limiting the access users have to Canadian media content, Google and Facebook are simultaneously earning from Canadian user engagement. This is unacceptable for a?free and democratic Canada?and unacceptable for the?health of Canadian journalism?and the Canadian economy more broadly.

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The introduction of?Bill C-10, which is informed by the recent?Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review and sets out new rules to allow the Broadcasting Act to apply to the internet, is one small step in taking a stronger stance against the corporate power that threatens to overwhelm Canadians, but it is a step in the right direction. This bill will finally allow the independent Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) powers to address major multinational corporations operating in Canada and impacting our economy without paying into it.

The concentration of media that has allowed corporations like Google and Facebook to determine government regulation and threaten sovereign nations as they have essentially done in Australia, is a phenomenon that requires stronger regulatory power to rein it back in. Canadians need to be prepared to stand up to these bullies when they come to tell our government that they will cut our services and limit our Canadian news searches.

Jessica Bay is a PhD candidate in Communication & Culture at York and Ryerson universities.

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