By Ellen Clegg
Google and Facebook are the epitome of sheer American chutzpah — as American as, say, Mark Zuckerberg wakeboarding across a lake on the Fourth of July, waving the Stars and Stripes in an irony-free display of patriotism. But both tech giants also have a global reach — and ambitions that seem to extend at least as far as the Kármán Line.
So it’s no surprise to learn that both companies recently signed deals with a slew of Canadian publishers, including digital startups as well as storied newsrooms like The Globe and Mail in Toronto. David Skok, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Logic, a digital news site that covers Canada’s innovation economy, provides a cogent explanation in his latest “Letter from the Editor” — and explains why he’s skeptical that Big Tech will ever truly have the public’s interest at heart.
(Skok founded the for-profit business, tech, and politics site three years ago, after stints at the Toronto Star and the Boston Globe, where he was managing editor and vice president of digital. Before landing at the Globe, Skok was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where he co-authored a noteworthy white paper on disruption in the news industry with Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor. Entitled “Breaking News,” it’s still worthy of a read.)
Eight Canadian publishers signed up to partner with Google News Showcase starting in the fall. Google will pay the publishers for content, and in return, the media sites will be able to sell online advertising and sign up new subscribers. Google Canada is doing its best to sound like an advocate of robust and unfettered coverage of community news. Or even like a friendly neighbor you might want to have a Labatt’s with. “We’ve never relied on high-quality, community-based journalism more than we have during the Covid crisis,” Sabrina Geremia, an official at Google Canada, told The Globe and Mail (subscription required). But neither Google or the publishers would comment on the value of the agreement, or the duration of the license. Facebook is launching a similar initiative, signing up 14 Canadian partners for its News Innovation Test.
Skok talked to a half-dozen publishers who were not part of the Google News Showcase deal. They asked to remain anonymous, but didn’t mince words: all told Skok they were angry that “the Big Tech platforms were applying restrictive and opaque criteria to privilege select publishers and employing a divide-and-conquer approach in a race to get ahead of the threat of legislation.” Skok points to a tantalizing initiative in Denmark, where a change in European Union copyright law has prompted publishers to join forces in order to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook. Google, Facebook, and now Amazon continue to rake in a significant portion of digital advertising dollars, leaving low-rent programmatic scraps for news sites. (Google’s share of the U.S. digital advertising market last year was 28.9%, and Facebook accounted for 25.2%, according to the Wall Street Journal. Amazon rose to 10.3% from 7.8% in 2019.)
“Big Tech’s sheer wealth, scale and influence mean these decisions will profoundly shape what you read, distorting the marketplace of ideas,” Skok writes. “This is not simply private-market players paying fair-market value in exchange for products — it’s private companies using their trillion-dollar market caps and immense bargaining power to steamroll an entire sector in pursuit of their own self-interest.”