Big tech companies can be as powerful as governments. But will major Canadian newspapers hold them accountable?
The public often thinks of journalists as daring reporters on the front lines, covering every piece of breaking news they can find. Yet, sometimes, they’re not there at all. The App Store is a huge part of the digital ecosystem, and Apple demands an equally massive cut from sales made on it. Thirty percent of every penny spent on the App Store goes directly to Apple. This has, since the digital storefront’s launch in 2008, become a point of contention between the company and the developers who create the apps. It’s possible for developers to avoid paying that 30 percent if they use an external payment processor, which requires iOS users to exit the app and fill out their payment information elsewhere. That wouldn’t be so much of an issue—if developers could tell their users to do so. Apple has prohibited such practices for the past decade, especially when it comes to in-app messages.
It was this prohibition on communication that developers pointed at in their class-action lawsuit against Apple, filed in 2019. The lawsuit claimed Apple’s 30 percent cut was only possible through the monopoly it had acquired over the platform, and that its use of “steering” to prevent communications was an anticompetitive practice. Apple recently settled this lawsuit, paying the aggrieved developers $100 million while also allowing developers to contact customers regarding alternative-payment methods, but only outside of the app. The settlement was huge news in the tech world, and multiple American publications covered it as such, with The Washington Post, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg leading the way.
The coverage in Canada? Near silence. The most prominent coverage came from The Globe and Mail, but via a story from an American newswire. At first blush, the lack of Canadian coverage makes sense. According to Mathew Ingram, a Canadian journalist who works as the chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, “Most tech companies are not Canadian. [There are] very few, even fewer than there used to be…In terms of big technology companies, Canada doesn’t really have any anymore.”
But even if big tech companies aren’t based in Canada, they can still have a huge impact on the lives of Canadians. Fundraising platform GoFundMe, for example, recently received criticism for acting as a channel to finance the trucker-convoy protests in Ottawa. The company is based in California, but in this age of global interconnectivity, distance alone does not always serve as an isolating factor. The site was still used to raise funds for a protest that shut down the heart of the nation’s capital for weeks.
Ingram acknowledges the need for wider tech coverage in Canada, saying that “[Technology] is a part of almost every aspect of society.” As to what kinds of tech coverage Canadians need, he suggests: “I’m not convinced that we need Canadian reviews of every video game that comes out or a Canadian take on the launch of a new iPhone. There’s lots of places that do that kind of thing that are pretty good. And I’m not convinced that a Canadian version of that would be significantly better. But, that said, I think there are broader technology stories that would be worthwhile.” But those stories are seldom written—at least not across the top Canadian papers, which often turn to focus solely on Canadian companies. If the tech beat in Canada is only focused inward, on startups and local affairs, it risks losing sight of the global issues that can ripple outward to affect Canadians. Technically speaking, it needs not just a reboot but a total system overhaul.
The Globe and Mail is one of Canada’s largest newspapers by circulation, and many of its original technology stories come from one writer—Sean Silcoff—who does as much as one reporter can. He works to create “the best snapshot possible of this ascending sector in the Canadian economy.” Other outlets devote even less attention to the sector, often choosing to post stories from newswires, like Reuters or the Associated Press. The press strives to hold governments to account—so why, for the most part, are newspaper organizations in Canada content to hand over to the wires their coverage of tech companies with just as much power?
According to Silcoff, it’s due to a lack of resources: “We really have to choose our areas of coverage. A publication like The Wall Street Journal, or The New York Times, or the Financial Times—they have armies of reporters who cover technology. You might have a handful of reporters just on one company alone, dedicated reporters just affixing themselves to Google or Apple. Whereas here at The Globe and Mail, for a while it was just me and one other reporter covering tech.”
While the Globe has three dedicated tech reporters, and other beat reporters have increasingly looked at technology-related advances in their sectors, they still need to pick and choose what areas they’re interested in. Silcoff sees his energy as best spent covering Canadian companies and Canadian markets, with only the occasional story on Silicon Valley-based “Big Tech” corporations like Apple. Even though there are smaller specialty publications—like MobileSyrup or The Logic—that release the kind of insightful and intelligent technology journalism Canada needs, they lack the wide readerships of more traditional news sites. So the everyday Canadian is unlikely to see such coverage, even though the impact of these big tech companies continues to grow. “[Technology] affects everyone in every kind of way,” says Silcoff. “Go back 15 years—it was relatively rare for people to have a smartphone. Some people had laptops, but we just did not interact with technology in every corner of our lives like we do today. And now, the technology is following us around, whether it’s on our smart speakers, our smart thermostat, or our smart doorbell, or smart lighting system…Technology is kind of everywhere, it’s transformed the way we interact with ourselves, with each other, with society, and with our employers.”
The kind of immersion in tech Silcoff describes has only grown during the last few years. For example, take a look at Amazon, whose first-quarter profits tripled during the first year of the pandemic. This was because many people found themselves stranded at home and using the company to buy groceries, masks, and other everyday essentials. Or look at Zoom, a company that saw a 355 percent increase in revenue during just the first six months of the pandemic. It has gone from a niche product to a household name, the virtual backbone of a new way to do business. To independent Canadian tech journalist Marc Saltzman, the problem goes further than just a lack of available tech coverage. It’s also about a lack of interest or demand for this kind of story. “People don’t care as much about the tech behind the scenes,” he says. ”They love their phone. And they can’t go a minute without it in their hand. But they don’t think of it as tech. At the end of the day, what are you using the phone for? Well, it’s to capture and share memories. It’s to keep in touch with friends and family. So that’s what matters to people, not the vehicle which allows you to do that.”
Even as tech grows in popularity, people seem less interested in interrogating it and more in what it can provide to them. Mainstream Canadian publications focus more on local stories, and less on the globe-spanning companies that make the technology that underpins so much of the modern world. Saltzman sees this as an issue, too. “We are Canadian. But a lot of our tech coverage is probably from the States…I think we have a uniquely Canadian outlook on life. And it’s different from the States. We have a different culture.” He continues on to explain what exactly makes Canada different: “We live in a wonderfully multicultural society, especially in Toronto. And I always have that lens on when I’m covering things, whereas sometimes I read content that is just so narrow-minded in its appeal.” He sums it up with one last thought: “Instead of being considered the 51st state, Canada is unique, and we have to celebrate it.”
So, as American and Canadian tech companies continue to grow, Canadian journalists should be the ones to point out when those companies are taking advantage of others. They should be there to highlight if, say, developers don’t receive much from a multimillion-dollar settlement with a company as big as Apple. They should be there, period.