Tech giants can expect a battle

Reckoning is coming for social-media companies that fail to assume their societal responsibilities

Steven Guilbeault was an environmental activist before he landed less than a year ago as heritage minister in Justin Trudeau’s government.

Oddly enough, Guilbeault is finding that background to be good preparation for his looming battle with tech giants such as Facebook and Google, and the resistance they’re showing to having their power reined in by governments around the world.

“This is the type of thing you would expect from a big polluter, what a big polluter would say 20 years ago,” Guilbeault said during a conversation in his ministerial office in Gatineau, Que., across the river from Parliament Hill.

It was that feeling — a combination of surprise and deje vu — that hit Guilbeault last week when Facebook announced it was playing hardball with the Australian government. Faced with looming legislation that would force the tech giant to pay for news it circulated on its platform, Facebook declared that it would simply block all Australian news on its sites worldwide.

“To see Facebook react the way they did,” Guilbeault said, “I mean, especially after all the bad press they’ve been getting, I’m like, ‘Really guys?’”

This is also a minister who has said that “data is the new oil,” so the polluters metaphor isn’t just tossed off the top of his head. In Guilbeault’s view, the tech giants are failing to appreciate that a reckoning is coming for big social-media corporations that fail to assume their societal responsibilities — much like those big polluters of the last century.

“I think you can bully one country around, you may be able to bully two countries, but at one point, they won’t be able to do it,” Guilbeault said.

“Soon enough, it’s going to be France and it’s going to be Australia and Canada will be on board — and I suspect we will find other allies internationally who will want to do this.”

In another interview last weekend, Guilbeault used the word “immoral” to describe the tech giants, and he says it isn’t one he used lightly.

“Yeah, I don’t think that the way they’ve been operating is very moral.”

In addition to his 25-year career with the Quebec conservation group Equiterre, Guilbeault is the author of three books. His latest was a deep dive into the role of artificial intelligence in the climate fight, so he comes to the tech-giant battleground with some considered opinions on data and social good.

Guilbeault isn’t giving out specifics yet on exactly when and how Canada intends to make corporations such as Facebook and Google pay for news, but he clearly sees it as one of the chief ways that government can work to ensure the long-term viability of more traditional media organizations.

Some of the battle plan is already out there. Last year’s Liberal election platform contained a promise to levy a three per cent tax on revenue that digital giants generate through sales of online advertising and user data — a measure that would have been in Budget 2020 had it not been postponed by the pandemic.

Erin O’Toole had a similar idea in his Conservative leadership platform, too, so this isn’t a political deal-breaker in a minority Parliament.

It is almost bound to turn up in the coming speech from the throne, along with some other tough talk aimed in the direction of Facebook, Google and others.

As Guilbeault points out, the tech giants should be able to see where the political winds are blowing, not just in Canada, but around the world.

The standoff between Australia and Facebook hasn’t deterred him, and he’s talking a lot to counterparts in France about their efforts to make the tech giants pay. France’s plan revolves more around ideas related to copyright, but Guilbeault said the aim is the same.

“There are going to be some differences, but conceptually, yeah, we’re trying to ensure that media get compensated fairly for further use of their content by web giants like Google and Facebook. Ultimately, that’s what everybody’s trying to do.”

Well — almost everybody. One wild card in all of this, of course, is the looming U.S. election and the question of whether Donald Trump stays in office.

The president has made loud noises before about any foreign attempt to tax the tech giants, which are largely based in the U.S., seeing this as a declaration of a trade war.

Guilbeault says he’s not about to start any wars. “I’m not — I just want to make sure that people are treated fairly.”

He prefers to see this campaign as similar in size and scope to the ones he waged for the environment; making polluters pay 20 years ago and making the tech giants pay today.

“I’m still an activist.”

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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