Facebook and Instagram Threaten to Pull the Plug on News in Canada

Meta and Google are on a collision course with lawmakers over the Online News Act, which would force them to pay publishers for content.

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Photo: Spencer Colby (AP)

Meta puffed out its chest over the weekend, threatening to block links to news sites in Canada from its social networks if the country moves forward with its “Online News Act,” which would force internet companies to pay publishers for their content. The statement follows similar ultimatums from Google over the bill, officially called C-18. Now, Big Tech looks like it’s on a collision course with Canadian lawmakers over the fate of online news in the US’ Northern neighbor.

In a statement Monday, a Meta spokesperson told Gizmodo the bill, as currently written, would force the company into an unworkable situation.

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“If the Online News Act passes in its current form, we will end the availability of news content on Facebook and Instagram for people in Canada,” the Meta spokesperson said in an email. “A legislative framework that compels us to pay for links or content that we do not post, and which are not the reason the vast majority of people use our platforms, is neither sustainable nor workable.”

What’s in the Online News Act, and why is Big Tech mad about it?

Modeled after similar Australian legislation, C-18 would require Meta and other internet companies pay news publishers when they reproduce their content, i.e. when a link appears on their sites. Companies that try to wiggle free of paying publishers for their links could open themselves up to binding arbitration. If passed, Canada’s Office of the Parliamentary estimates Google and Facebook combined would wind up paying around CA$329.2 million (roughly $242.99 million USD) to news publishers per year. Though supporters like Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez say the legislation is necessary to help a media industry devastated by social media, tech giants have derided the bill as an unnecessary “link tax.” Facebook followed through on its threat to block news links in Australia in 2021.

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“All we’re asking Facebook to do is negotiate fair deals with news outlets when they profit from their work,” Rodriguez told Reuters Monday. “This is part of a disappointing trend this week that tech giants would rather pull news than pay their fair share.”

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Meta says the bill ‘misrepresents’ the relationship between Big Tech and publishers

This isn’t the first time Meta’s raised concerns over the bill. After C-18 was announced, Meta released a statement arguing the bill “misrepresents the relationship between platforms and news publishers,” and inaccurately presumed the social media giant unfairly benefits from its relationship with news providers. Meta went on to say news posts from publishers made up just around 3% of what Facebook users see in thier feed.

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Meta isn’t alone. Google, the other largest tech firm implicated by the legislation has repeatedly raised concerns over the bill’s scope and even ran “tests” last month temporarily limiting news results to around 4% of randomly selected users in Canada. Google downplayed those blockages publicly, with a spokesperson telling Gizmodo it, “runs thousands of tests each year,” but lawmakers like Rodriguez appeared to intercept those actions as a threat.

“​We’ve been fully transparent about our concern that C-18 is overly broad and, if unchanged, could impact products Canadians use and rely on every day,” a Google spokesperson previously told Gizmodo. “We remain committed to supporting a sustainable future for news in Canada and offering solutions that fix Bill C-18.”

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Over the weekend, Google confirmed it would end its five-week tests on March 16. Speaking in front of a House of Commons heritage committee meeting on Friday, Head of Google Canada Sabrina Geremia reportedly told lawmakers she believed the current version of the bill would benefit legacy media institutions and incentivize clickbait or misinformation.

“The exemption and eligibility criteria have shifted so significantly that it would require subsidies to media companies even if they don’t produce news, are not online, and we don’t link to their content,” Geremia said according to CTV News.

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Meta plays hardball

Meta has some experience playing legislative games of chicken. Two years ago, Meta called Australian lawmakers’ bluffs and briefly pulled the plug on news sharing in the country in response to legislation similar to Canada’s. That shutdown cut off news access for an estimated 17 million Australian users and allegedly would up impacted sites of essential services like hospitals and fire services caught in the crossfire. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg accused the company of “endangered public safety” by cutting off news access during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Still, the strongarm tactic seems to have worked. Meta eventually eased off of its news block and agreed to a watered-down version of the Australian bill that, among other carve-outs, let Facebook and Google agree to deals before being forced to enter arbitration with publishers. Campbell Brown, Facebook’s Head of Partnerships at the time, wrote an email to staff following the bill’s passage saying the company, “landed exactly where we wanted to.”

With its recent statements, Meta is drawing a clear picture of how its willing to go to fight Canadian law. Google, similarly, appears prepared to go to the mat with regulators if they don’t get their way. The only real question now is how committed Canadian lawmakers are to push through C-18 as written. A combined news block out from Meta and Google, even if only short-lived, could send a shockwave throughout the country.

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The tech firms, on the other hand, have plenty of incentive to dig in. Though Canada isn’t a particularly large market for either Facebook or Google, a victory for lawmakers there could embolden other countries to pass similar legislation. Left unaddressed, that could escalate into a wildfire of new publisher payment requirements.