MPs have diluted a demand that Meta, owner of Facebook, produce a raft of e-mails and texts about the federal online news bill, after the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce warned the motion’s wording “poses a serious threat to the privacy of Canadians.”
Monday’s climbdown by MPs on the Canadian heritage committee follows Perrin Beatty’s letter warning that a motion drawn up by Chris Bittle, the Heritage Minister’s parliamentary secretary, “sets the stage for a major fishing operation.”
The Liberals’ draft motion, set to have been voted on Monday, would have forced the tech giant to produce communications with “all third parties” about Canadian regulations, including the online news bill, since January, 2020.
Mr. Perrin raised concerns that the demand “would put a chill on the legitimate work of thousands of associations, chambers of commerce, unions, social action groups, not-for-profits and private enterprises across the country.”
“It is impossible to know who the next target of this type of measure will be,” he said in the letter, copied to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.
On Monday, the Commons heritage committee voted to support a watered-down version of Mr. Bittle’s motion launching a study on “the ongoing use of intimidation and subversion tactics to avoid regulation in Canada and across the world.”
The motion said Meta and Google appear to be using their dominant market position to try to intimidate Parliament.
The Globe and Mail revealed earlier this month that Meta has resolved to remove Canadians’ access to both written and broadcast news on Facebook and Instagram if Bill C-18 passes in its current form.
Google last week finished five weeks of tests of a potential response to Bill C-18, restricting 1.2 million Canadians’ access to news through its search bar.
What is Bill C-18, and how could it affect how Canadians use the internet?
Bill C-18, which is now in the Senate, would make Google and Meta compensate news organizations for posting or linking to their work and both tech giants have called for changes to its wording.
Google and Facebook say the current wording of Bill C-18 would impose uncapped financial liabilities, including for links to news. Google says it would prefer to pay into a fund to be distributed to news organizations.
The new wording of the heritage committee’s motion, proposed by Liberal Anthony Housefather, ditched Mr. Bittle’s clauses making Facebook produce communications with “third parties.”
But it retained the substantive parts of his motion establishing a study into tech giants’ tactics around the world in response to legislation affecting how they operate.
MPs voted to retain the summons for Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs and a former British deputy prime minister, and Chris Saniga, head of Canada at Meta, to testify.
The new motion scrapped a renewed summons for Kent Walker, president of global affairs and chief legal officer at Alphabet Inc. – Google’s parent company – and Richard Gingras, vice-president of news at Google, to appear before the committee, after Google said voluntarily beforehand they would testify.
The committee also said Facebook needs only to produce communications going back to April 5, 2022, the date when Bill C-18 was tabled, rather than Jan. 1, 2020.
They excluded from the scope of the inquiry direct communications with individuals, after Tory heritage critic Rachael Thomas raised concerns about privacy.
She said Mr. Housefather’s revised motion was “much more appropriate” but raised concerns about the government spying on what people say.
“Please do not put individual Canadians in a place where their communications which were believed to be private will now be subject to government surveillance,” she said.
The Tories abstained on the motion establishing an inquiry into the tech giant’s tactics which was supported by the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP.
“The motion the committee adopted today deals with reviewing how mega platforms like Meta and Google are dealing with government, not only in Canada [but] around the world,” Mr. Housefather told The Globe and Mail. “This will allow us to learn from the intimidation tactics that occurred in Australia and see what is happening in the U.S. and the European Union among other jurisdictions.”
Lauren Skelly, Google’s spokesperson, said: “We always aim to work constructively with Canadian parliamentarians and the Government of Canada on regulatory issues.”
Facebook’s spokesperson, Lisa Laventure, said it would “continue to be open and transparent about our concerns with parliamentarians and will keep Canadians informed of any changes to our services.”
The committee also voted to summon Mr. Rodriguez to answer questions, including about funding issues.