The Liberal government is hinting that it will take steps to limit how much money Canada's publicly funded broadcaster can collect under Ottawa's new revenue-sharing agreement with Google.
The agreement announced Wednesday requires Google to provide up to $100 million a year to Canadian news organizations whose content is featured on their sites, with each outlet's share of the pie depending on how many full-time journalists they employ.
Under draft regulations laid out in the Online News Act, which will regulate the deal, CBC/Radio-Canada currently stands to collect the largest share, since they employ one-third of the journalistic workforce in Canada.
"I don't think that CBC/Radio-Canada needs to leave with a third of the envelope, so we will address that in the final regulations that will be published soon before the coming-into-force of the law," Pascale St-Onge said in French.
Both the Opposition and Bloc Québécois have been critical of how much CBC/Radio-Canada stands to collect from the deal — as much as $33 million a year, according to Conservative MP Rachael Thomas, the official Opposition critic for Canadian Heritage.
"Those local media outlets will receive very little, and possibly nothing at all. This bill has killed them," said Thomas, who sits on the Canadian Heritage committee where St-Onge testified Thursday.
"Big tech has colluded with big government to do away with news in this country. It will be less choice for Canadians and less access for Canadians. It's a shame."
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet pointed to the revenues CBC/Radio-Canada already receives, including nearly $1.3 billion in the last fiscal year from government funding, plus advertising and subscriptions.
"After a careful calculation I arrived to a huge zero," Blanchet said after he was asked how much CBC/Radio-Canada should receive from the Google deal.
"I think this money should be kept for private media in order to support, strengthen and improve the coverage and representation of local and original news throughout Quebec and Canada."
Quebec's minister of culture and communications has also called on Ottawa to exclude CBC/Radio-Canada.
"I am entirely conscious of the dynamic, and the difficulties of our medias in the private market, and we will take that into consideration in the final regulations," St-Onge said.
But it would be wrong to say that content produced by the public broadcaster shouldn't qualify for any of that funding, she added.
"The way that we should see how this works in the bill is that it's an incentive for media to hire journalists because this is new revenues that would be coming into that sector."
When asked if there would be new regulations laying out how much CBC/Radio-Canada could receive under the deal, St-Onge said it would be covered by a Treasury Board process that's currently underway.
"We totally understand the situation and we're taking it into account," she said, without providing additional details.
The details of Ottawa's agreement with Google will be made public when the final regulations for the Online News Act are published sometime before the law comes into effect on Dec. 19, said Leon Mar, a spokesperson for the CBC.
"CBC/Radio-Canada believes the agreement is an important step in ensuring that all Canadian media receive fair payment for the news content their journalists produce that is currently used by foreign companies such as Google to earn revenue," Mar said in a statement.
The Online News Act compels tech giants to enter into compensation agreements with news publishers for content that generates revenue for companies such as Google by appearing on its sites.
Google agreed to provide newsrooms with up to $100 million each year, indexed to inflation, in exchange for an exemption from the law. The company will negotiate those payments through a single collective bargaining group, which will operate much like a media fund.
St-Onge said the law allows any eligible media to join the collective, which could include newspapers and broadcasters, as well as French-language and Indigenous news organizations.
While the Liberals are celebrating the deal as a win, the shadow critic for Canadian Heritage accused the Liberals of caving in to Google's demands: the government had been seeking $172 million, according to a formula that was included in an earlier draft of the regulations.
"The government and Google entered into a back room and they created a deal. They cooked up a deal. And all of Google's terms have been met," Thomas said. "It's another example of big tech and big government colluding, and it ultimately will damage news in this country."
The Conservatives have vowed to repeal the Online News Act if elected.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Star said its publisher, Torstar, is disappointed in the deal and won't support it.
The Star reported that Jordan Bitove, the owner and publisher of Torstar, said he appreciated St-Onge's efforts but that Torstar can't support the $100-million cap "in its current condition." He said it was not responsible to announce a deal while final regulations are still not publicly available.
The newspaper noted that Torstar favoured and lobbied for the legislation.