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C-18: Prejudging A Process
On Google Links And Liberal Tricks
This week has seen two seeming inevitabilities come through – the Raptors lost Fred Van Vleet for nothing and they now have to finally reckon with the entirety of their options, and Google announced that when Bill C-18 comes into effect, they will stop linking to news sites in Canada. Obviously, at first blush these two things seem disconnected, but what’s interesting is the number of people treating the latter of those the way the collective basketball world treated the former.
The collective reaction for the last year to what the Raptors are doing has been annoyance, because this has seemed inevitable for a while. The Raps have won 2 playoff games since the Bubble, and the idea of running it back indefinitely infuriated so much of the commentariat because at their core everyone – whether they’re admitting it explicitly or not – believes the Raps will end up in a rebuild at some point soon, and the only question is when, not if.
What was infuriating about the tone of much of the coverage of Google’s decision this week on C-18 was that it was covered with the same triumphalist noises that those who said the Raps should have sold at the deadline used on Friday, with prominent commentators claiming that Google’s decision represented a vindication of their position – that this was the end of the process, that the result was known.
The problem with that glib certainty, of course, is that this isn’t the end of the process, but merely the end of the phony war. What’s happened up to now has been choreographed, and now we’re at the beginning of the improv section. Up to now, we’ve been playing out a not very interesting script, and now it’s run out. Put another way, this is when it gets interesting.
Nothing I’m going to say is a defence or condemnation of Bill C-18 – I’m not opposed to trying to extort Facebook and Google to save our dying media landscape, but I’m not sure it’ll work and even if it does, I’m not sure it’ll be worth enough cash to actually achieve anything. To the point on why local and independent news seems opposed, but the big name publishers support it, that’s simple – the benefits of Bill C-18 if the Liberals win the standoff will mostly flow to the big names because they’re the vast majority of the traffic, but independent and small outlets losing access to Google and Facebook if the Liberals lose the standoff represents a much bigger threat to their survival, since the National Post or whatever will still get a lot of direct traffic.
What some people have decided is that Google and Meta won’t fold, and therefore that these threats confirm their view that this bill is a mistake. That, to me, seems like a mistake – I’m not saying they will fold, but when Australia did this, the takes were horrendous about how the Government had miscalculated and then Facebook folded. Now, Facebook claims they didn’t fold, and that they aren’t actually subject to the Australian legislation, but the way they bought themselves out of the structures was through paying a shitton of money to publishers.
If Google and Meta do the same thing here – if they agree to pay Postmedia and the Star and everywhere else the same substantive amounts they would have to but get the Liberals to promise to amend the “uncapped liability” part, it’s a climbdown for the tech companies. If the Liberals get Google and Meta to pay something, but not anywhere close to what was envisioned by Bill C-18 originally, the Liberals will have found a face saving backdown.
I don’t think a full climbdown from either will come – Facebook was careful to not frame their climbdown as a climbdown in Australia, even though substantively they blinked, and I don’t think the Liberals can survive a full on embarrassment, so when somebody blinks, there’ll be a face saving deal. But I think the people who know who will blink – and specifically, that it won’t be the tech giants – are missing something. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, is surprised by this move from Google. This threat was always going to come, and the Liberals aren’t caught off guard by it or surprised.
Now, that doesn’t mean that they might not have to back down from their position, but they’re certainly not acting like a climbdown is imminent. We know what the Liberals look like when they’re looking to find a way out, and sending Chrystia Freeland out to talk up the approach of Pablo Rodriguez is not the first part to a climbdown.
Now, Google has made the calculation that the damage they’ll take to their books from an increase in people using Bing or DuckDuckGo will be less than what they’d have to pay, but there’s every chance their projections are wrong. One of Google’s uses is their news imprint, and if any website or any thing of any kind is suddenly less useful than it was, it’s not exactly a conspiracy to think people will change their habits.
The real thing that has been revealed by this is how few people have ever engaged in a high level negotiation, played poker, or even followed sports. You have to be willing to lose to win a negotiation, because you have to be fine with the downside – losing to a better hand, seeing a player walk in free agency, whatever – to get the proper upside. If you’re not willing to lose you’ll never win.
Google’s leverage is that they’re Google – a tech giant that is impervious to competition and being defied. They might be right, but would the idea that a company that thinks that about itself would overestimate their necessity in a fit of hubris really shock us? It shouldn’t. In the same way the Liberals have proven themselves to be arrogant bastards who believe their own press releases (or, more crudely, their own bullshit), the idea that Google might fall victim to it has to be considered.
The critics of the government might be right, and the inevitable government climbdown might look like the Raptors’ seemingly inevitable teardown that losing Fred clearly forces them to. But a lot of people are assuming that there’s only one end to this standoff – a Liberal climbdown - and that is a very dangerous assumption. It might be right, but it’s about as certain as going all in with pocket 10s.