Google execs rebuked and put under oath after repeatedly dodging questions on news blocking

Key questions on Google’s response to Bill C-18 and the implications to Canadians and local news media remained largely unanswered at the Canadian Heritage committee meeting, today. 

Sabrina Geremia, vice president and country manager of Google Canada reiterated that Google’s decision to temporarily limit access to news content in response to Bill C-18 is only “a product test” throughout the two hours that she faced rigid interrogation from committee members.

Google’s public policy manager, Jason J. Kee, was Geremia’s technical pillar of support, but committee members had no interest in hearing from him.

Halfway through the meeting, both Kee and Geremia were put under oath, as committee members grew visibly more frustrated with their hazy answers.

Tests, however, remained Geremia’s silver bullet answer. She revealed that tests are standard and normal, and that Google runs over 11,500 tests each year, affecting less than 4 per cent of Canadians each year. She also criticized Bill C-18 for being vague, putting an undetermined price on links available to Canadians and requiring Google to pay a large number of organizations that do not even produce news. “This creates maximum uncertainty, disincentivizes voluntary agreements, and moves us further from the shared goal of supporting the U.S. and Canada.”

In a rather awkward exchange, Kee added that the bill will favour larger publishers, as Google will naturally lean towards those who perform “longform thoughtful investigative journalism” and not “short form low quality journalism.” To which a committee member asked, “You’re suggesting that Google is the source on what is low quality journalism entirely?” 

Geremia maintained that news is still generally available to Canadians and that the test is being conducted only as a response to the radical change in legal landscape for linking in Canada. 

But trivializing the so-called tests irked the committee members further, who claimed that four per cent equals 1.2 million Canadians who have been affected by these tests. 

“Today, we find out that four per cent of the population had their democratic rights put to the side. You might have Google tested me, I might be one of the 1.2 million that all of a sudden I can’t get to do a Google search. Is that fair for me? Or other Canadians? I don’t think that’s fair. You’re a $1.3 trillion company. And I think you’ve over exceeded your boundaries,” said Conservative MP Kevin Waugh.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather also highlighted that the fact that senior leadership at Google is aware of the test is indicative that the test is very unusual and far from being “ordinary” or normal course of business. When asked if those tests would be disclosed, Geremia replied that “the team will get back to you.”

However, right as the hearing started, Google released an open letter, written unsurprisingly, by Geremia, to help Canadians to understand what it says the tests are all about. The letter read; “Google runs thousands of real-world tests every year as a way to understand new features and changes. The current tests explore potential impacts to Search and Discover results should Bill C-18 become law in its current form.”

Furthermore, while Geremia managed to dodge most questions as not her area of expertise, she confidently denied the claims of the Canadian Association of Journalists and Unifor Media Council that media workers have been disproportionately affected by these tests, Martin Champoux from Bloc Quebecois pointed out.

Committee members also questioned Geremia on Google’s failure to produce all internal and external communication regarding the matter, to which she replied that the request was very broad and short notice. As of today, Google only produced publicly available documents.

The controversial national test is set to end next week.

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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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