Canada is strongly condemning Facebook’s decision to block news-sharing on its platform in Australia as part of an escalating standoff over rules requiring social-media platforms to compensate news publishers.
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Thursday that Facebook’s actions are imperilling public safety, given that the news ban initially led to the temporary shutdown of Facebook pages run by key government agencies, including a suicide-prevention service and a fire-and-rescue organization.
Mr. Guilbeault said Facebook’s move will not deter Canada from moving ahead with legislation early this year that will require social-media platforms to fund news.
“I must condemn what Facebook is doing,” he said Thursday during an online news conference. “I think what Facebook is doing in Australia is highly irresponsible and compromises the safety of many Australian people.”
Mr. Guilbeault pointed out that he met just last week with his counterparts from Australia, Finland, France and Germany to discuss a common front on news and other issues related to Facebook and Google. He said he expects the coalition will soon grow to about 15 countries.
“It was the first ministerial meeting where we jointly started talking about what we want to do together regarding web giants, including fair compensation for media. We believe that there’s real strength in unity on that,” he said. “I’m a bit curious to see what Facebook’s response will be. Is Facebook going to cut ties with Germany, with France, with Canada, with Australia and other countries that will join? At a certain point, Facebook’s position will be completely untenable.”
Australia is in the final stages of approving legislation that would require Google and Facebook to reach compensation agreements with registered news publishers for news content that is shared on the platforms. The two companies strongly opposed the legislation as unworkable and Google initially threatened to shut down its Google search engine in the country. In recent days however, Google has announced individual compensation deals with major Australian publishers.
On Wednesday, Google announced that it had reached a three-year deal with News Corp., which publishes several news platforms in Australia, including The Australian, news.com.au and Sky News. The deal will compensate the publisher for news that appears on its platforms such as Google News Showcase.
Facebook’s announcement Wednesday comes after a flurry of high-level lobbying by the company for changes. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said this week that he is in direct talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the issue.
William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia & New Zealand, explained the company’s decision in an online post Wednesday.
“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” he wrote. “As we have made clear to the Australian government for many months, the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favour of the publishers – which is the reverse of what the legislation would require the arbitrator to assume. Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million.”
Mr. Easton added that news makes up less than 4 per cent of the content people see in their Facebook news feed. “For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal,” he said.
NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice proposed a motion Thursday in the House of Commons to condemn Facebook’s decision in Australia and that “Facebook’s intimidation has no place in a democracy.” The motion was not approved as it did not receive unanimous consent.
Google has also recently announced compensation arrangements with news publishers in France. Mr. Guilbeault has said Canada is looking closely at the Australian and French models to guide Canada’s legislation. On Thursday, Mr. Guilbeault said regulation is still needed even if platforms reach arrangements with publishers.
“What we are doing is moving away from a volunteer approach. We want something that is fair, that is transparent, that is predictable,” he said. “What’s to say that Google tomorrow, six months, a year from now, doesn’t change its mind and decide that that’s not what they want to do anymore? What would happen then to news publishers in in Canada? Which is why we continue to believe that we need this regulatory framework to ensure that the rules are fair for everyone.”
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