Facebook parent company Meta has threatened to cut Canadian users of its social media services from news content in response to a piece of legislation that resembles Australia’s news media bargaining code.
The Online News Act, which was introduced to Canadian parliament in April, will let news outlets collectively bargain with tech giants like Meta and Google for news content that appears on their platforms.
Canada’s Heritage Committee has been conducting hearings about the bill but has conspicuously left out Meta – one of the companies most affected by the proposed legislation.
In the absence of committee appearances, Canadian Meta executive Marc Dinsdale used a blog post to say the Online News Act “misrepresents the relationship between platforms and news publishers” and warned it may force a similar news blackout on Facebook as the one seen in Australia early last year.
“Faced with adverse legislation that is based on false assumptions that defy the logic of how Facebook works, we feel it is important to be transparent about the possibility that we may be forced to consider whether we continue to allow the sharing of news content in Canada,” Dinsdale said.
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez told a committee late last week that he is still willing to consider changes to the bill but criticised Facebook for opening its “playbook used in Australia” to pressure the government.
“All we’re asking the tech giants like Facebook to do is negotiate fair deals with news outlets when they profit from their work,” Rodriguez said.
The Canadian Parliamentary Budget Office estimates the bill could bring up CAD$329 million (AUD$379m) a year to news businesses.
Similar laws in Australian led to deals with the tech giants reportedly in the tens of millions of dollars per year but carried widespread criticism that the legislation rewards large incumbent media outlets whose advertising revenue was swallowed up by Google and Facebook.
Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottowa, has criticised the Canadian version of this law bill for exactly this, and questions the logic behind making tech giants pay for content that news outlets choose to share.
“As Facebook notes, the value of the links largely flows toward the publishers who get free referrals, increased advertising revenue, and potential subscriptions.
“Facebook doesn’t copy or reproduce the full article and it doesn’t post the content itself. It is often the media companies themselves that do the posting.”
No news is good news
Meta also argues that links shared from news outlets were of limited interest to Facebook as a platform, making up some three per cent of content shared on Facebook.
But Meta also plays an active role in what kind of content appears on its platform, including publicised changes to its News Feed algorithm that reduced the amount of news and political content people see.
“We are being asked to acquiesce to a system that lets publishers charge us for as much content as they want to supply at a price with no clear limits. No business can operate this way,” Dinsdale said.
“A policy that unfairly subsidises legacy media companies that have struggled to adapt to competition reduces trust in media and makes the transition to digital models even more difficult.”
There’s no doubt Facebook has the willingness to pull the trigger on a Canadian news ban as it did in Australia last February when Australian users were suddenly barred from sharing and posting links from any news sources.
The ban covered not just news but public interest pages like the Bureau of Meteorology, state health departments, and not-for-profits.
At the time then-Opposition leader Anthony Albanese described Facebook’s block of emergency service pages as “reprehensible”.
While Facebook blamed technical errors for the expanded block coverage, whistleblowers later revealed that the scope of the ban was deliberately broad with engineers told to “be overinclusive” and refine the algorithm as it went.
One whistleblower said the implementation of the changes were “contrary to standard practices for rolling out major changes that might have potential side effects”.