Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne has been accused of meddling with the independence of the Competition Bureau after he tweeted his support for a complaint by media organizations over Meta’s decision to block news on Facebook and Instagram.
In a joint letter to Competition Commissioner Matthew Boswell this week, broadcasters and publishers asked him to investigate Meta’s decision to block Canadians’ access to news on Facebook and Instagram, a decision the company made in response to the federal government’s Online News Act.
The letter urged the competition watchdog to use his powers to force Meta to reverse course, saying the tech giant has abused its dominant position and is guilty of anti-competitive conduct.
Mr. Champagne said in his tweet: “I am determined to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that Canadians can have access to reliable news – across all platforms. I fully support the complaint made to the Competition Bureau by CND media groups against Meta in their effort to promote a free & independent press.”
Mr. Champagne’s department has been carrying out consultations into modernizing the Competition Act, which establishes the competition commissioner’s role. He also is responsible for re-appointing Competition Commissioner Matthew Boswell next year at the end of his five-year term, or choosing a successor.
Mr. Champagne’s public intervention was criticized as a misjudgment, given his role appointing and reappointing the competition commissioner, who is independent of government.
Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet law, said there is “at least an appearance of conflict and that alone is deeply troubling.”
“The Competition Bureau is an independent enforcement body, but Champagne wields significant power, including the ability to re-appoint the current Commissioner,” he said. “It is simply inappropriate for a minister to pre-judge a complaint to the bureau and Champagne’s comments appear to have done so and undermine the integrity of the process.”
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, said as the commissioner’s appointment is not independent from cabinet, the Minister should not be giving his views on complaints to him or inquiries.
“Ministers should be staying away from any decisions they would make because that undermines their independence even more,” he said.
The CBC, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters and News Media Canada said in their letter to the commissioner this week that social-media platforms are so dominant, they are now a key way for media outlets to reach people.
“Having positioned itself as an unavoidable intermediary or gatekeeper between news organizations and their audiences, Meta’s blocking of news content removes a critical channel through which Canadian news organizations distribute their news content,” the letter says. (The Globe and Mail is a member of News Media Canada, an advocacy and public policy association that represents hundreds of daily and community media outlets.)
“If Meta is allowed to proceed unchecked, it could inflict significant damage to Canadian news organizations’ ability to offer quality news services to Canadians, which is critical to the functioning of a free and democratic society,” the letter adds.
Meta began restricting Canadians’ access to news this month in response to the federal Online News Act, also known as Bill C-18. The legislation was designed to support the news industry, which must now compete with tech giants for advertising revenue, by making Meta and Google compensate publishers for using their news content.
Audrey Champoux, a spokeswoman for Mr. Champagne, said “the minister keeps a keen eye on issues of potential anti-competitive conduct and welcomes the bureau examining the blocking of Canadian news by Facebook.”
The Competition Bureau said it had been monitoring news blocking by Meta closely and “was already in the process of conducting a preliminary review of this matter” when it received the complaint.
“As the bureau’s preliminary review is ongoing and there is no conclusion of wrongdoing at this time, it would be inappropriate to speculate as to potential outcomes, timing, or appropriate next steps. Should the bureau conclude that the conduct in question falls within the Competition Act, we will not hesitate to take appropriate action,” said spokesman John Power.
Paul Deegan, president and chief executive of News Media Canada, said he was “not surprised to learn that the Competition Bureau had already been looking into Meta’s news blocking, which is an abuse of its dominant position.”
“We still have months to go before the regulations are drafted, so we invite our friends at Meta to work with us, the broadcasters, and Google to ensure that the regs allow for everyone to thrive together for many years to come,” he said.