Ottawa

Attention web giants: 'Recess is over'

A small group of nations, led by Canada, have been quietly preparing to take on the tech giants. Inside their battle to rein in the most powerful companies on Earth.

This story by Alec Castonguay first appeared in L’actualité and has been translated from French

It’s the dead of night when Steven Guilbeault’s alarm clock wakes him up. He jumps into the shower, puts on a blue suit, adjusts his grey tie—even though he hates wearing them—and reviews his notes before the 5 a.m. video conference. “I still had the imprint of the pillow on my face when the meeting started!” laughs the Canadian Minister of Heritage, a few weeks later.

On this Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, Guilbeault’s wife and their children were fast asleep when the minister sat down in the living room, behind the small, rickety wooden table on which he had placed his laptop. He is the chair of the meeting, so he sees his counterparts from France, Finland, Germany and Australia appear one by one on his screen.

These five ministers and their senior officials make up the group of countries that, at Canada’s initiative, are preparing the diplomatic battle to regulate Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft (GAFAM), as well as Netflix, Spotify and other titans that dominate the world’s digital universe.

“When an issue is too big for a single country, we have to tackle it as a gang,” Guilbeault explained in an interview. “The size and power of these companies forces collaboration between countries. At some point, we have to stop thinking in our own corners and talk to each other, a bit like countries had to do for climate change.”

Around the world, governments and digital platforms are colliding on four fronts, with varying degrees of intensity depending on the country: eliminating online hate speech, paying media outlets for sharing their stories, taxation, and fees to the cultural community to stimulate local cultural creation.

For just over 12 months, the Working Group on Content Diversity in the Digital Age—the “Working Group,” in the correspondence between the five countries—has been working on a declaration to be released in 2021, which will leave each state free to adopt its laws according to its circumstances but also provide a framework while sending a strong message to the titans of the Web. “A global Internet giant can try something against one country, but if there is a unified position among various governments, then it becomes completely different,” Paul Fletcher, Australia’s Minister for Communications, Arts and Cybersecurity, told me.

In an interview, Guilbeault pauses briefly to choose his words carefully. Not to temper his words, as politicians are wont to do, but to make them more forceful. “For the past decade, we’ve let the Web giants do whatever they want. But it doesn’t work. They are making billions in profits, not paying their fair share, not promoting our artists enough, and are the conduit for unacceptable speech online. Our countries are saying that recess is over.”

After confronting the big polluters and oil companies when he was an activist with Greenpeace and then Équiterre, Steven Guilbeault now finds himself facing companies with equally deep pockets and equipped with an unwavering determination—Netflix and the five companies that make up GAFAM alone have 43 lobbyists registered to try to influence the federal government. The minister shrugs when I mention this presence. “They’re there, protecting their interests, and that’s okay. I don’t mind,” he says.

Jean-Hugues Roy, a professor at UQAM’s École des médias and a specialist in the relationship between digital platforms and journalism, is closely following the tug-of-war between the world’s governments and the Web giants. He is consulted by senior federal officials. According to him, Guilbeault’s background as an environmental activist serves him well. “He is not easy to intimidate. He has the reflex to go out and seek support to confront those who seem stronger than him,” he explains in an interview.

This is not the only parallel that can be drawn with the oil companies, those giants of the last century. Like digital platforms today, oil companies embodied economic progress for years, enriching their shareholders in the process and creating great global fortunes, such as the Rockefellers in the United States. Today, the world’s most successful people are no longer mining oil, but mining personal data, which they sell to various companies that can target their consumers on Facebook, Amazon, Google, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and others. “This data is very valuable, it’s the new oil of our hyperconnected world,” says Roy.

At the beginning of February 2021, the five ministers, spread across three time zones—it’s 8 p.m. in Australia!—are visibly happy to meet. The officials in their respective offices have been preparing their battle plans for a year. The elected officials exchange a few jokes about the castle-like decor of French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot. The gilded walls and high ceiling of her office in the chic Marais district of Paris contrast with the cheap bookcases of the Canadian and Australian ministers. French, English and German translators are on hand to help.

The talk turns more serious when the ministers address one of their most pressing concerns: the compensation that web giants should pay to news media for sharing content on their platforms. This content helps attract users to digital platforms, which allows the titans to reap advertising revenues, which have long been the basis of the business model of most media—including L’actualité and Maclean’s. Google and Facebook alone have 80 per cent of the lucrative online advertising market and are reluctant to share the pot with publishers, believing they have limited responsibility for the erosion of their revenues over the past 10 years.

Minister Paul Fletcher says he is “relieved” to have the support of his counterparts at a time when the relationship between the web giants and the Australian government is deteriorating as it prepares to pass legislation to force digital companies to compensate the media. It’s tense with Google, but even more so with Facebook, he tells them. “There’s some turbulence!”

A month before the ministerial meeting of the Working Group, Google threatened to shut down its popular search engine in Australia if Parliament passed its law. Google eventually backed down from its threat, preferring to negotiate with Australian media groups, but Facebook would not.

On Feb. 17, a week after the virtual meeting of the five ministers, and a few days before the law comes into force, all the Australian media’s Facebook pages will be deactivated, as well as the hyperlinks leading to their websites, and the country’s 17.9 million Facebook users—69 per cent of the Australian population—will be deprived of these information sources.

In the meantime, the world’s largest social network will also suspend Scott Morrison’s government pages about COVID-19, vaccination, suicide prevention and forest fires—at a time when summer is in full swing in this country—and even the page of a rape crisis center. The public outcry was immediate, both in Australia and around the world, and lasted a week while the dispute was resolved.

In an interview, Fletcher says that Facebook did not send any warning to the Australian government. “It was a shock,” he says. “Not only was it a mistake, but it was terribly clumsy, poorly executed. Facebook acted in a way that only a company that outrageously dominates its market can afford to. It just goes to show what we’ve been saying for a long time: there’s an imbalance of power out there.”

Facebook’s response was orchestrated in high places. It was the social network’s top boss, Mark Zuckerberg, who negotiated directly with the Australian government to resolve the conflict.

According to Kevin Chan, director of public policy at Facebook Canada, the first draft of the Australian law went against the company’s business model, which is to make hyperlinks posted by users free. “A government can absolutely decide what it wants to do, but an organization can also choose whether it wants to comply with that decision. One option is to simply leave the market,” he says.

Kevin Chan sits on Facebook’s global government relations committee and has been closely following the saga unfolding in Australia, especially since Canada could learn from that country’s model. “I want to be clear, I don’t want the same situation to happen in Canada. We want a better solution. ”

Australia’s tussle with Facebook has only strengthened the belief of politicians in all five countries that there is strength in numbers. “We are seeing more and more large platforms with global operations claiming to set their own rules of the game by opposing national legislators who want to regulate them,” said French Minister Roselyne Bachelot in an interview. “States, that is, citizens, are going to take back control of their destinies.”

When the crisis subsided in Australia on Feb. 23 and Facebook reactivated the missing pages and agreed to negotiate with the media groups, one of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s first calls was to his ally in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau. He then contacted Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, who will preside over the G7 meeting in June, where Australia will be invited to tell the story of the standoff with the Web multinational.

***

A small line item buried in the voluminous 2019 federal budget kicked off this interstate collaboration. The Trudeau government then set aside $3.6 million for “an international engagement strategy to develop guiding principles on online content diversity.” The official goal: to establish a framework to help governments and businesses navigate the many changes ahead. The unofficial goal: to bring other countries into the fray, as Canada is too marginal a player to take on digital platforms alone.

The International Trade Division within the Department of Heritage was given the job. The choice was not insignificant: the civil servants there are used to working with other countries. Their list of contacts is considerable.

In the days following the tabling of the budget in the spring of 2019, Michel Sabbagh, director of international trade at Canadian Heritage, assembled a team of four officials on the eighth floor of a building in the Les Terrasses de la Chaudière government complex in Gatineau. There was only one topic on the agenda: where to start!

Australia quickly became the unanimous choice. Both countries have a history of sharing cultural concerns and mutual inspiration of regulations. Their populations are small and they try to keep alive a culture that is different from the American steamroller. Both states have public television and radio, as well as a constellation of private media outlets that are suffering from the erosion of advertising revenue to the web giants. The rise of hate speech and extremist groups on social networks is of concern to Ottawa and Canberra. Canada and Australia also like to work together on the international stage—for example, on national security and espionage through the “Five Eyes” agreement on sharing “classified” information. They also deployed their soldiers side by side in the conflict in Afghanistan.

On Aug. 26, 2019, the deputy minister at Canadian Heritage, Hélène Laurendeau, along with two senior officials, Julie Boyer and Owen Ripley, landed for a four-day reconnaissance mission in Australia and New Zealand. In the report marked “confidential” that summarizes their stay, the officials write that discussions included “digital disruption” induced by a few large corporations, “online misinformation,” “election integrity” and “government support for the cultural industry, journalism and local news.”

During their meeting, Hélène Laurendeau and Secretary Mike Mrdak, the senior official at the head of the Australian Department of Communications and the Arts, discuss the bankruptcy of Groupe Capitales Médias, owner of six daily newspapers in Quebec, as an example of the disruption of the current media ecosystem.

This conversation will lay the groundwork for the strategy to come. Here’s how the Canadian Heritage document summarizes what they said: “The partnership with Australia and Canada’s ongoing partnership with the European Union are increasingly important as governments engage with global digital platforms. These companies are being asked by several governments at once, on multiple fronts, and are struggling to respond effectively to the public policy issues associated with their business models. A coordinated approach to these multinationals would encourage these companies to respond more quickly and ensure that the public policies we develop are consistent with Canadian and Australian values.”

The Deputy Minister and the Secretary agreed to approach other countries “with similar values” to form what would become the core of the Content Diversity in the Digital Age Working Group.

Back in Canada, Canadian officials are reaching out to Germany, Finland and France, countries with which Ottawa worked closely to bring about the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions in 2005. In addition, in fall 2019, France was the first country in Europe to enshrine in its national laws the European Copyright Directive, which aims to empower publishers, artists and creators to negotiate compensation for their work shared online.

However, the battle is fierce between Google and the French media, who are battling it out in court. The U.S. giant is stalling and negotiating slowly—the talks will end after 18 months, and without the specialized press reaching an agreement. “Each creator, each author must be able to be remunerated for his or her work, and even to live off it, including when it is distributed online,” says Minister Roselyne Bachelot. “It is through ambitious and common rules of the game, which sometimes require significant regulatory powers, that we can ensure that the major digital players contribute to supporting cultural diversity.”

Europe was the first bloc of countries to put the idea of banding together to better regulate the Web’s multinationals into practice, two years ago, by setting up a common strategy for its 27 member states. Former Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip led the negotiations on the digital single market as vice president of the European Commission from 2014 to 2019. “It’s easier to be united than to negotiate one country at a time with these companies. Whether it’s Europe, Canada or Australia, we all have the same issues and the same dissatisfactions: platforms make a lot of money and don’t give enough back to society,” he says in an interview.

Andrus Ansip, now a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, points out that the bad experiences of Germany and Spain forced the European Commission to step in. In 2014, after passing a law to force Google to better compensate news groups—dubbed the “hyperlink tax”—Spain saw the Silicon Valley giant retaliate by shutting down its Google News service in the country. The stunt caused an instant 20 per cent drop in traffic to media websites. That same year, a similar threat caused Germany, which had intended to follow Spain’s lead, to back down. “These were resounding failures,” he admits.

In 2019, when Andrus Ansip and his team released their copyright directive, Google made the same threat to close Google News, this time across Europe. So far, only France has dared to go ahead with the directive, and Google has chosen instead to negotiate with press and creators’ associations. “There is an intimidating side to these giants, because there is a lot of money at stake. They have the means to defend themselves. I hope that other countries will follow France’s lead,” says Andrus Ansip, who stresses that he has always had “frank, honest and cordial” discussions with American digital multinationals. “They defend their interests, so it’s up to elected officials to do their job as well.”

***

The Working Group on Content Diversity in the Digital Age officially kicked off on Feb. 10, 2020, one month before the pandemic began, when 17 officials representing Canada, Australia, France, Finland and Germany met in the basement of the Canadian Embassy on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. Eight Canadians attended, including the Assistant Deputy Minister of Canadian Heritage, Jean-Stéphen Piché, who chaired the meeting. Ambassador Isabelle Hudon made welcoming remarks while delegates were still finishing breakfast in the windowless room lined with the works of painter Jean Paul Riopelle—six paintings from 1979, Dawn, Morning, Sunset, Dusk, Noon and Afternoon, adorned three of the four walls, while the other wall was occupied by a giant screen for videoconferences.

According to the minutes of the meeting obtained by L’actualité, the group of five discussed “the need to go beyond short-term public policies” and to establish “a framework that would allow a healthier digital ecosystem for citizens.”

The idea of laying the groundwork for a new international treaty that would be legally binding on the parties circulated, but Steven Guilbeault would ultimately push back on this possibility after a conversation with Line Beauchamp, who was Quebec’s representative to UNESCO from 2014 to 2016. The two had rubbed shoulders when she was Liberal Minister of the Environment, from 2007 to 2010, while he was an environmental activist at Équiterre. They stayed in touch. “I asked Line what she thought,” says Guilbeault. “She told me that it was very long and bureaucratic, getting a treaty adopted at UNESCO, and that I should first mobilize a few countries around a joint declaration before thinking about a treaty.”

One of the people at the meeting at the Canadian embassy, who requested anonymity because they are not allowed to speak to reporters on the record, says the one-day meeting was “pivotal.” “We were finally all in the same city, in the same room, discussing the issues and what each country was planning to do. After a few hours, we felt like we were getting somewhere,” says the official.

The most animated discussion came at the end of the afternoon, when the composition of the Working Group was finalized. Participants quickly agreed that it was best to keep the group to five countries to facilitate discussion and build consensus before inviting other nations to join. But it’s a different story when it comes to the role that digital giants should play. Should they be invited to the table, or presented with a fait accompli once the strategy is adopted? Page 2 of the confidential Canadian Heritage document summarizing the meeting states that “some members of the group expressed concern about the involvement of digital platforms early in the Working Group’s deliberations.”

A compromise was reached: members of civil society, such as researchers and creators’ associations, will be invited to join the group, as will representatives of multinational web companies, to “obtain their input on certain aspects of the reflection in order to write the guidelines.” However, the officials agree to continue the dialogue in parallel between countries on some of the more delicate aspects, including the regulations to be adopted.

So in the spring of 2020, Jason Kee, a public policy and government relations advisor at Google Canada, was invited to join the Five Country Working Group. “I accepted right away,” he says. “It was an opportunity to better explain how we work and what can be done. The goal is to find a compromise that is acceptable to all. ”

He will be on the group along with Nick O’Donnell of Netflix Australia, Louis-Alexis de Gemini of French company Deezer—a music streaming platform±—and Tessa Sproule of Vubble, a Canadian company that uses artificial intelligence to amplify video sharing.

Guilbeault was not keen on the idea of including business representatives in the Working Group. “I thought it would be easier to work between countries first,” he explains. His officials were able to convince him that the strength of the declaration that would emerge from the work would be increased tenfold if technology companies participated in its development. The roadmap would be easier to sell to other countries. “That argument has fueled my thinking,” he says, before smiling and saying, “The platforms thought it was better to be at the table than on the menu.” Google’s Jason Kee laughs when I quote Guilbeault’s phrase. “I wouldn’t put it that way, but I agree with the principle!”

Still, the minister sometimes feels that things are “dragging on a bit” because business and civil society representatives are “turning over every comma in the text,” he tells me in the bright spring of 2021. The joint statement is still expected to be released later this year, he says.

Guilbeault is in a hurry. He introduced his Bill C-10 last November to reform the Broadcasting Act, which would force Internet players who stream content in Canada, such as Netflix, Apple, Amazon and Spotify, to contribute more to the creation of domestically produced films, TV series and songs. The bill is currently before a parliamentary committee. The Minister will also table his bill to better prevent hate speech and defamation online within the next few weeks, and then complete the sequence before the summer with movement on media compensation from the web giants. He is counting on the common front of the five countries to consolidate his position.

This is in contrast to the wait-and-see attitude of the Trudeau government during its first mandate, from 2015 to 2019. Then Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly struggled to explain why Netflix would not be required to charge GST to its customers. The “Netflix tax” episode—an election promise to counter Conservative rhetoric that accused the Liberal Party of Canada of wanting to raise taxes on citizens—left a lasting impression, particularly in Quebec. It cemented the impression of a government that is accommodating to the digital giants. Trudeau and his ministers used to talk more often about the benefits of innovation and the jobs created in Canada thanks to these multinationals than about the consequences on the cultural and media ecosystem.

Today, Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland strongly support Guilbeault in his desire to regulate the web giants. The Prime Minister’s instructions to Guilbeault following the September 2020 Throne Speech are clear. He must “ensure a more equitable sharing of the revenues of the Web giants with our creators and media, as well as require them to contribute to the creation, production and dissemination of our stories, whether on screen, in speech, music or in writing,” reads his mandate letter.

What happened to change the Trudeau government’s course? Behind the scenes in the Liberal Party, they talk about a “shift in thinking” after several significant events.

***

When Joly took over as head of the Department of Heritage in 2015, she did not have a mandate to make digital platforms contribute to the Canadian cultural and media ecosystem. The Prime Minister asked her to replenish the coffers of the Canada Council for the Arts and Radio-Canada, without taking money from the pockets of Silicon Valley giants.

The Prime Minister’s Office chose a former Google Canada employee, Leslie Church, as Chief of Staff to assist Mélanie Joly. Leslie Church had a front row seat to the war her former employer waged in Spain and Germany the previous year over not paying for the sharing of press articles. So she advised Minister Joly and Justin Trudeau against getting into a battle with digital platforms.

A year later, the unpredictable Donald Trump took over the White House and demanded to renegotiate NAFTA. Justin Trudeau and two of his top advisors, Gerald Butts and Mike McNair, felt it best to wait to confront the Washington-backed U.S. GAFAMs so as not to derail the negotiation process.

During the talks, Freeland and Joly however succeeded in extending the cultural exception clause of NAFTA to the digital universe, so that culture is not considered as a commodity among others. This clause gives the Canadian government more leeway to legislate and subsidize its cultural industry in order to protect it.

While NAFTA 2.0 was being negotiated, several events were giving Trudeau and his close collaborators pause.

First, Russia was accused of having used social networks to influence the outcome of the American presidential campaign in the fall of 2016. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, where the Prime Minister went in January 2017, it was the topic of discussion—and fear—among world leaders.

Then, in the spring of 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. This British company took advantage of a loophole in the protection of personal data held by Facebook to try to influence British and American voters. “There was anger in the Prime Minister’s Office. We were wondering, ‘What is this, the wild west?!’” says a source present at these meetings.

Less than a year later, on March 15, 2019, a man filmed himself slaughtering worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The horrifying event, which left 51 dead and about 40 injured, was broadcast live for 17 long minutes on Facebook, without the company intervening.

The debate over how little censorship of hate there is on digital platforms was gaining momentum while at the same time the low taxation of these high-revenue multinationals was gaining attention—the top 10 tech companies earned US$261 billion in profits in 2020, but pay very little tax or duty in the countries where they do business.

Pressure was mounting within the Liberal caucus to change the party’s direction heading into the fall 2019 election campaign. Quebec MPs were intervening with Trudeau to get the party to get tough on the web giants. They want the latter to contribute more to the dissemination and creation of local culture. Ontario MPs are more concerned about the bile that is being spread on social networks. “We’ve taken the two areas of interest, put it together and put more pressure on the PM and his advisors,” says one MP who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to disclose the content of private conversations within caucus.

In May 2019, Trudeau flew to Paris, where his friend President Emmanuel Macron was hosting the major VivaTech summit on the future of the digital industry. At the time, France was preparing to legislate to force web giants to pay a 3 per cent tax on revenue generated on French territory and force them to negotiate better compensation for sharing media stories.

This trip completed the Prime Minister’s conversion.

On May 16, at 10:15 a.m., Trudeau climbed onto the main stage of VivaTech at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles, in the 15th arrondissement, in front of hundreds of delegates—business leaders, diplomats, investors, researchers—and delivered a 25-minute speech that marked a break with the wait-and-see attitude of previous years. The speech went largely unnoticed in Canada. But its impact was no less great.

After a few stock words about “the technological advances in our societies that are changing our lives for the better” and “the enormous opportunities that lie ahead,” Trudeau changed his tune: “But the change that is happening quickly also has risks,” he told the crowd. “What we see today is a digital sphere that has turned into the wild west, and that’s because we as governments and industry leaders haven’t made it a real priority. We need to pay attention to what is happening. The very character of our countries is at stake.”

He then returned to the Christchurch live massacre, “It wasn’t a wake-up call, it was the last straw for governments, tech companies like yours, and the citizens of the world. … Some say that in the wake of such an attack, we shouldn’t be talking about politics…. Well, when 51 people are murdered and the whole world can see it in real time, that’s exactly the time to talk about politics,” he said. The room leapt to its feet to applaud him.

The LPC’s fall 2019 election platform no longer bore a trace of the party’s reluctance about the “Netflix tax.” Instead, it asked Canadians for a mandate to bring the digital giants to heel.

Guilbeault, elected in Laurier-Sainte-Marie in Montreal, did not witness the party’s internal tug of war from 2015 to 2019. “When I arrived, everyone wanted to regulate the Internet multinationals. I never felt a problem, so I took the ball and ran with it! ” he says with a laugh.

***

Most of the giants are American, and can count on support from Washington, but that support is no longer without cracks. Even at home, in several states and in Congress, the power of the web giants disturbs lawmakers.

Bill Ferguson, a Democratic state senator from Maryland, succeeded in passing the first American law to tax the digital revenues of Web companies in its jurisdiction, on Feb. 12. A tax of 2.5 per cent to 10 per cent will be levied on the sales of companies whose revenues exceed $100 million. Maryland expects to raise about $250 million a year from this tax, which will be reinvested in the education system. “We want these companies to succeed, not to be punished,” the senator said in an interview. “But the Web giants need to contribute more to the social fabric they profit from.”

“The reason digital companies are doing a roaring business is because the users of their platforms are educated, connected, and have high enough incomes to spend, which attracts advertisers,” Ferguson points out from his home in Baltimore. “Since they don’t have a physical presence in Maryland, these companies don’t pay taxes like others, so they don’t help fund our education system or infrastructure, but they do enjoy all the benefits of a modern society! We need to adjust our tax system to the new economy,” he says.

The new Maryland law is being challenged in court by the Internet Association, a grouping of Silicon Valley players like Facebook and Google.

The Web giants are also being sued by prosecutors in 11 U.S. states for abuse of monopoly power.

In mid-March, a bill with the support of many Democrats and Republicans was introduced in both houses of Congress to allow media organizations to join together to better negotiate compensation for journalistic work shared online by Facebook and Google. “These two companies actually have a monopoly. They have so much power that they can threaten countries to leave their market,” says Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, referring to the Australian battle. She has received the support of powerful Republican Senator Mitch McConnell in her crusade.

This crack in the armor of the big technology players has put the American diplomatic apparatus on a cautious footing. Washington is not flexing its muscles to try to thwart the will of countries that want to better control them. Australian Minister Paul Fletcher confirms this: “As long as our laws respect the international treaties signed by the United States, Washington stands back. ”

Moreover, the Internet giants do not get along with each other, which prevents the U.S. government from championing one of them abroad, at the risk of displeasing another. For example, in Australia, Microsoft was quick to offer its Bing search engine to replace Google’s if the latter were to carry out its threat to leave the country. Microsoft, which also owns the social network LinkedIn, said it was happy to negotiate with media groups, unlike Facebook and Google.

Andrus Ansip, a member of the European Parliament, confirmed that he never had the U.S. government on his back while his team at the European Commission was drafting the new copyright directive. “Apple is fighting Spotify, Microsoft is fighting Google… so the U.S. government is stuck, it can’t have a clear position. These giants have enough money to look after their own interests anyway without needing Washington’s influence,” he argues.

Jason Kee of Google Canada says he doesn’t feel the shadow of the U.S. government behind him in the negotiations. “Tech companies are minding their own business and are happy to talk directly with the governments of the world. ”

The one notable exception occurred when the Trump administration threatened France with economic retaliation if Paris adopted a special 3 per cent tax on GAFAM revenues generated on its territory. Yet the Biden administration softened the tone upon taking office. The new Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, has agreed to participate in the OECD’s work on the global taxation of Web giants and has said she is in favour of the principle, unlike the previous administration.

In Ottawa, however, they are not taking any chances. Guilbeault and his close collaborators, including his chief of staff, Mathieu Bouchard, are informing the American embassy in Canada of their intentions before tabling their reform projects that affect digital multinationals. It’s attention that American diplomats appreciate. “We know that the Canadian government is considering several new initiatives to regulate online platforms. We are meeting with their representatives to learn more and make sure we understand each other,” says Molly Sanchez Crowe, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Canada.

The absence of a U.S. Department of Culture makes things a little more complicated for Guilbeault. “I don’t have a counterpart in Washington,” he says, “so it’s hard to take the temperature of the water. For them, culture is first and foremost an economic issue. It’s not the same for us.”

Kevin Chan of Facebook Canada says he’s glad to see countries talking more about how best to regulate the web giants. “We want governments to have a more harmonized and consistent approach around the world. It’s easier for us than interacting with 180 countries,” he explains. Jason Kee of Google Canada agrees. “By working together, it will be easier for states to understand what they can impose on everyone, and where there should be regional particularities,” he says.

Guilbeault hopes to unveil the guidelines and action plan developed by the Working Group of Five by late spring. Recruitment of new countries to sign on to the joint statement is in full swing. The Minister is declining to reveal names, but we have learned that Mexico, Chile, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Japan are keen to join the battle.

Australian Minister Paul Fletcher welcomes this. “When there is a legal vacuum or a situation that no longer works, it is the job of the democratically elected governments of the world to address it, ideally together. Businesses are not above the law, they will adapt.”