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The battle between tech giants and the government is a turf war, and we're caught in the middle
Google and Meta are fighting back against a poorly-crafted Canadian law. But that doesn't make them the good guys.
Last week, Google decided to remove Canadian news from its search. As much as Google search sucks — it’s becoming what Cory Doctorow calls “enshitified” — it dominates the market thanks to a combination of inertia and competitors who suck even more. Meta led the charge to block domestic media days earlier, deciding to eliminate it from Facebook and Instagram. Sorry, folks, if you’re on one or both of those hellsites, you’ll have to get your news from your drunk, racist uncle or some grifter thinspo influencer. Them’s the breaks.
The tech giants decided to block Canadian news, and to cancel existing media-funding deals, in response to Bill C-18 becoming law. Parliament passed The Online News Act in June. Among other things, the Act compels the platform giants to pay legacy publishers for “use” of their content — which includes linking to it. Some call it a “link tax,” which is a term I like because the government is forcing tech giants to pay to link to content. But “link tax” has become an industry talking point and government/public relations tool, so, despite me liking it, I usually include an asterisk.
The Online News Act is meant to support the media industry by diverting a modest amount of funding away from the tech giants to media in Canada. So, we take from Google to giveaway to some US hedge fund who runs a newspaper. Brilliant. That’s a bit unfair, since it’s not just the big outlets who’ll benefit, in theory. But the big legacy outlets will likely benefit first and most, further entrenching them in the ecosystem, at least until they finish hollowing themselves out.
The logic of the law is misguided, as Steve Faguy points out in a must-read post. Take Google search for instance. Linking is what a search engine does. And it links to media, which people will then read, advertisements and all, or else will hit a paywall, which they can then circumvent by paying for the publication (or, umm, through…other means). The same logic applies to Facebook, except in that case, it’s people sharing the articles, not the search engine indexing (or caching) them. But same difference. The platforms are sending people to the pieces, driving traffic there. And for that service, the government wants platforms to pay a premium. It makes no sense—even if it does make sense to compel these tech giants to pay more and it also makes sense to fund media to keep it from dying.
Let’s not let the tech giants off the hook. They are utter bastards. They’re too big and too powerful. Their long-term game is to keep your eyeballs glued to their own ad-supported spaces while collecting as much data about you as possible and filing endless patents until they own the world and everything in it. They want to monopolize within their markets, and beyond. They’ll make their services as awful as possible to nickel and dime you while surveilling you. They are not your friends. Moreover, they are contributing to a decline in legacy media (alongside legacy media itself). The internet upended the business model for journalism, siphoning advertisement dollars—with a big-ass siphon. Meanwhile, tech giants tend pay little to no taxes while extracting value from the state through subsidies and reliance on its infrastructure.
The whole thing is quite a mess, with no side offering a compelling reason to pull for them. The tech giants are bullies — or “silicon mobsters” as Sandy Garossino put it. The government was heavy-handed and inept in dealing with the file. The legacy media companies are for-profit (sometimes foreign) entities run by suits who’ve been gutting journalism in Canada for decades. The rest of us are caught in the middle of this turf war. We just want to read (and write) the news, man.
Beyond being a mess, this kerfuffle is a turf war over the future. It’s not immediately just about money. Google and Meta make billions of dollars. Throwing some table scraps to media companies is not going to kill them. But neither company wants to cede more power to the state to regulate and extract cash, nor do they wish to let Canada build on Australia’s successful model taxing them, since it will encourage other jurisdictions to follow. Indeed, Google and Facebook pulled a similar stunt there when the Aussies first launched their plan, and they watered down their legislation in response. A hundred million here, a hundred million there, soon you’re talking about paying your fare share for extracting value! But of course Google and Meta have no interest in doing that. So, they’re firing a shot across the bow.
And that is what this issue comes down to—extracting value while protecting turf. That is what Meta and Google do. They extract value from their workers, the state, and each of us, all while paying a pittance back. And then they fight to control the internet, because far from being the original online libertarian dreamers, tech bros want to control how the online world operates themselves. They want regulations — they just want those regulations to be de facto, inudstry based rules and limits, except for the occasional, old school state-based regulation that will act as a barrier to entry for their competitors.
So, why don’t we tax these tech giants in another, more logical way? In a recent piece for his Substack, Paris Marx offers some ideas for this in a great primer on the issue. I like his idea of an ad tax. The link-tax model is a non-sequitur means to induce media funding from tech giants because they contribute to killing traditional media, even as they drive traffic to them. The end is noble, but the means is questionable.
Whether Google and Meta will blink remains to be seen; ditto for the government. The Liberals might amend the law. The tech giants might climb down, though they have little reason to. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I had to guess, I’d say the government will amend the law, soften it, to placate the giants and try to save some face in the process. Then the giants will return to striking bilateral, or perhaps multilateral, deals with media companies, and we’ll be back where we started by fall. But who knows. I could be wrong. That’s a guess.
As we proceed, we ought to accept a few things: the Online News Act is bad law that needs to be amended or scrapped, Google and Meta are not your friends, we need to find a way to save journalism, some (legacy) media companies are awful themselves, and we need to reign in the tech giants and force them to pay for what they extract from their workers and from us.
Easy peasy, so what’s everybody waiting for?