Meta is sticking to its guns — the social networking giant says it will follow through with its threat to cut off Canadians’ access to news on Facebook and Instagram following the passage of the hotly contested Online News Act. The news shutdown could significantly rattle news access for the more than 20 million Canadians who use the social networks, choke news outlets’ revenues, and set the stage for similar policy skirmishes around the world.
The Canadian Senate passed the bill, also known as C-18, late Thursday evening. In a nutshell, the legislation would force Meta and other internet companies like Google to pay news publishers when they reproduce their content, as they do when a users posts a link to a news story. Supporters of the bill say it and others like it are necessary to support local journalism decimated during the abrupt transition from print to digital media. Opponents say it amounts to an unnecessary “link tax.”
Meta has vigorously opposed the bill from the start, arguing it misrepresents the relationship between platforms and publishers and would lead to an “unworkable” situation. The company has been testing its ability to cut off news access in recent weeks and now says it’s both willing and able to hold true to its threat.
“Today, we are confirming that news availability will be ended on Facebook and Instagram for all users in Canada,” Meta said in a blog post immediately following the senate vote. “We have repeatedly shared that in order to comply with Bill C-18, passed today in Parliament, content from news outlets, including news publishers and broadcasters, will no longer be available to people accessing our platforms in Canada.”
Meta claims the news blackout won’t affect other parts of the Facebook and Instagram app experience.
“We want to assure the millions of Canadians on our platforms that they will always be able to connect with friends and family, grow their businesses and support their local communities,” Meta added. A Meta spokesperson referred Gizmodo to the blog post when asked for further comment.
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, one of the law’s strongest supporters, pushed back against Meta’s rationale for limiting news access in a statement sent to Gizmodo. A spokesperson for Rodriguez said his offices have had meetings with both Facebook and Google in the past week.
“Facebook knows very well that they have no obligations under the act right now,” Rodriguez told Gizmodo. “Now that Bill C-18 has received Royal Assent, the Government will engage in a regulatory and implementation process. If the Government can’t stand up for Canadians against tech giants, who will?”
A strong, independent and free press is fundamental to our democracy. The Online News Act will help make sure tech giants negotiate fair and equitable deals with news organizations.#CndPoli #C18 pic.twitter.com/KWvZQVrCCz
— Pablo Rodriguez (@pablorodriguez) June 23, 2023
How did we get here?
Canadian officials and Meta are set to repeat a similar conflict that occurred in Australia two years ago. In that case, lawmakers proposed their own journalism laws which Meta similarly said would make providing news services untenable. Facebook and Instagram briefly cut off news access for an estimated 17 million users, leaving essential services like hospitals and fire services caught in the crossfire. Meta eventually brought news back to the platform days later but only after lawmakers agreed to a watered-down version of the bill that would let Facebook and Google agree to deals before being forced to enter arbitration with publishers.
Meta officials speaking during a Canadian parliament hearing last month acknowledged the untended consequences of shutting down news access in Australia but tried to assure lawmakers this time would be different. Both Meta and Google have tested blocking news access to a limited number of its Canadian users in recent months.
“It is absolutely our intention to not make the same errors in Canada that we made in Australia,” Meta’s public policy head for Canada Rachel Curran said. Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Canada’s Office of the Parliamentary estimates Google and Facebook combined would wind up paying around CA$329.2 million to news publishers per year.
“All we’re asking Facebook to do is negotiate fair deals with news outlets when they profit from their work,” Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said in a statement earlier this year. “This is part of a disappointing trend this week that tech giants would rather pull news than pay their fair share.”
Trudeau says Canada won’t back down from Meta’s ‘bullying tactics’
Canadian lawmakers, so far at least, appear willing to go to the mat with Meta to defend the new law. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed into the debate earlier this week, by accusing Meta and Google of engaging in bullying tactics.
“The fact that these internet giants would rather cut off Canadians’ access to local news than pay their fair share is a real problem, and now they’re resorting to bullying tactics to try and get their way — it’s not going to work,” Trudeau said.
The final outcome in Canada could have wide-ranging consequences far beyond the Great White North. Other countries and major US states like Canada are currently debating similar bills that would force internet companies like Meta to pay a “journalism usage fee” when sharing news content. Meta opposes these efforts and has similarly threatened to cut off news access in California, its home state. US lawmakers are considering reviving similar legislation at the federal level.
If any of these bills succeed, it risks setting off a chain reaction of copy cats laws all across the world. What was once an annoying but manageable policy change in a country with a relatively small user base could quickly morph into a substantial issue chomping into Meta’s bottom line. For now, neither Meta nor Canada appears willing to blink first.
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