News blockade on digital platforms creates a vacuum of info on Canadian wildfires

Earlier this month, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, started blocking Canadian users from seeing news on its platforms. When a user tries to post a link to a news story on their Facebook or Instagram page, an error message pops up: “In response to Canadian government legislation, news content can’t be shared.” In June, Meta started blocking news links for a small number of users as a test; then, on August 1, it announced that the block would be broadened to include all users and all news sources. Meta said its action was necessitated by a law that the Canadian government passed in late June, called the Online News Act, aimed at forcing digital platforms to pay news publishers for their content. It is set to take effect at the end of the year. (Google also said that it would block news links from its Search and News portals, citing the same legislation, but a recent test by CJR brought up news links from multiple Canadian publishers, in both Search and News.)

In a statement in June, Meta described the new law as “flawed legislation that ignores the realities of how our platforms work [and] the value we provide news publishers.” Google said that it amounted to a “link tax,” and that it was fundamentally unworkable because it creates “uncertainty for our products and exposes us to uncapped financial liability.” Meta’s decision to block the news was a replay of a tactic that it used in Australia in 2021, in protest of a similar law called the News Media Bargaining Code. (Canada’s law was based on the Australian one, as I wrote back in March.) After the Australian government made a number of changes to the law, Meta removed the news block, and both it and Google started cutting deals with news publishers. (Last year, Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, dug into that process in a piece for CJR).

Note: This was originally published as an email newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Until last week, Meta’s news blockade seemed mostly to be a nuisance for users in Canada. But it took on new significance recently as forest fires in the country expanded in a number of areas, leading to deaths, mass evacuations, and the loss of millions of hectares of forest and millions of dollars in property. Earlier this month, Pascale St-Onge, Canada’s heritage minister, called Meta’s decision to block the news a “reckless choice,” adding that the incumbent Liberal government was calling on the company to reinstate news-sharing on Facebook “for the safety of Canadians facing this emergency.” On Monday, Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, accused Meta of “putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety.”

David Troya-Alvarez, a spokesperson for Meta, told CBC News on Monday that, while the company doesn’t intend to restore access to news, people in Canada are still able to use Facebook and Instagram to “connect to their communities and access reputable information, including content from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organizations.” Troya-Alvarez noted that Meta had also activated a feature called Safety Check, which allows users of Facebook to let their friends and family know that they are safe. Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Meta, added that the company has been “clear since February that the broad scope of the Online News Act would impact the sharing of news content” on its platforms, and that the company remains “focused on ensuring people in Canada can use our technologies to connect with loved ones and access information,” such as pages run by civic and emergency-response agencies.

But some media watchers in Canada say Meta’s block on the sharing of news links at such a critical time is irresponsible. Dwayne Winseck, a professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, called Meta’s actions “reprehensible” in an interview with the Globe and Mail, adding that when a tech platform shuts down an important source of news at a time of crisis, “we are right to be very concerned.” Daniel Tsai, a lecturer in communication and technology at the University of Toronto, told the Globe that Meta’s decision was “insane,” and that people are “not getting critical information such as what’s happening in Yellowknife, with the prospect of an entire town being burned down.” The Canadian Association of Journalists asked Meta to drop its ban on news, and a number of freelance and independent journalists said that the blockade is hurting them by preventing them from reaching their readers.

This episode, too, has precedent in Australia: as Grueskin noted in his piece for CJR, Facebook, in attempting to remove news from its platform, “bungled the job” by also removing public-service information about a wave of bush fires in that country. (The platform also took down critical information about the COVID-19 pandemic and support pages for victims of sexual violence.) This provoked a visceral reaction among many Australian users of Facebook, which in turn put pressure on the company. “It was the worst calculation they could ever have done,” Bruce Ellen, the general manager of the Latrobe Valley Express and leader of a regional-newspaper association, told Grueskin. “It galvanized not just the media but the general public.”

Public opinion may have turned against Meta and its platforms as a result of the news blockade in Australia, but it took concessions by the Australian government to end the ban. As the New York Times reported at the time, the government agreed to change the law in a number of ways—perhaps the most important being that the digital platforms could avoid being forced to pay news publishers if they had already cut deals with them voluntarily. This provision allowed both Meta and Google to reach specific agreements with individual publishers, rather than being forced to pay the same amount to all of them. Canada’s law also allows the platforms to reach their own deals with publishers. But Meta and Google say that the Canadian law could cover a much wider field of news sources than Australia’s law, which could entail a great deal more financial liability for a commodity—news—that Meta has said only comprises about three percent of an average user’s activity.

While critics like Winseck and Tsai see Meta’s block on news as reprehensible, some media observers see it as a rational response to a flawed law. Indeed, since the idea was first mooted, many observers have criticized the law’s premise. Writing last year, Joshua Benton, of Nieman Lab, called the Canadian bill “a terrible idea,” arguing that the central feature of both the Canadian law and the Australian version is misdirection. “Publishers complain about Google and Facebook’s use of their stories, but that’s not what they’re actually angry about,” Benton wrote. “What they’re angry about is that Google and Facebook dominate the digital advertising business. And those are two really different things!” Also writing last year, Isabel Macdonald, a technology researcher at the University of Ottawa, wrote in an essay in Policy Options, a conservative magazine, that if the government wants to fund Canadian journalism, it should redistribute digital revenue, instead of forcing the platforms to cut news deals.

More recently, the editorial board at the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest daily newspaper, has also suggested that there are better ways of funding journalism than the approach taken by the Online News Act. The legislation, the paper’s editorial board wrote, “creates the perception that some media are preferred by the government of the day,” and will likely direct money to existing journalistic entities at the expense of innovative journalistic startups. When Grueskin wrote his piece for CJR, one of the biggest issues with Australia’s legislation was a lack of transparency about the deals being cut, with publishers reluctant to discuss details “thanks to ironclad secrecy agreements insisted upon by the tech companies.” Critics say that the Canadian law suffers from a similar problem.

If Australia was able to modify its law and get Meta to drop its blockade on news, does that mean Canada can, or will, do likewise? Some experts are skeptical. Michael Geist, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa who has been writing about digital copyright and related issues for decades, told CBC News that many people seem to have decided that Meta’s block is “all just a bluff and they will ultimately come back to the table.” But Geist argues that there are some key differences with the Australian precedent. In Australia, Meta implemented its news ban before the bill passed, allowing the government to more easily make changes, but Canada’s bill has already become law.; the Australian government “left itself with the wiggle room to engage in that kind of negotiation,” Geist told CBC News, whereas Canada did not. And retracting the law altogether isn’t really an option, Geist says, despite his view that it is “already a failure and seems certain to cost the Canadian media sector hundreds of millions of dollars.” 

The government could try to pass amendments before the law goes into effect at the end of the year, and has reportedly expressed interest in making some changes, including capping the platforms’ financial liability. But Geist and others think it unlikely that the government will find a compromise with Meta. (It may have more luck with Google.) While Meta was still nominally interested in funding journalism in 2021, when Australia put its news bargaining code together, the company has since made it abundantly clear that it has lost interest—not just in funding journalism through investments like training funds and fellowships, but in having it on its platforms at all. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for negotiation. Meanwhile the fires rage on.

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