The federal government has urged Facebook to pick up the phone to discuss Ottawa’s online news bill, as Liberal MPs stepped up their attack on the tech giant on Tuesday for threatening to block Canadians’ access to news in protest at the proposed law.
Facebook warned last week that it may stop Canadians viewing and sharing news in response to Bill C-18. If the bill is passed, it would make Facebook and Google pay news organizations for carrying links to their articles, which the platforms say is unfair.
Speaking to reporters in the Commons on Tuesday, Chris Bittle, parliamentary secretary to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, accused Facebook of “threatening the well-being of Canadians” by suggesting it could employ the same tactics it used in Australia last year.
In response to a similar Australian law making tech giants pay for using news, Facebook temporarily blocked Australians’ access to news sites on its platforms.
The platform lifted the ban days later after an Australian minister held talks with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and agreed to make amendments to the proposed law.
Mr. Bittle and two other Liberal MPs sharply criticized Facebook for threatening a similar move over Bill C-18.
In Australia, Facebook had “overblocked” access, Mr. Bittle said, and it stopped Australians accessing vital public-information sites, such as the department of fire and emergency services and a suicide prevention page.
“In Canada, Facebook has stepped up again to threaten the well-being of Canadians, to threaten our safety, to threaten our information online,” Mr. Bittle said.
On Friday at the Commons heritage committee, he accused Facebook executives of “robber-baron tactics” by threatening to withdraw Canadians’ access to news sites – an accusation he repeated to reporters.
He said if Facebook carried out its threat in Canada, people would not react well to having “a major foreign player coming in and pushing Canadians around.”
Facebook declined to comment.
But Laura Scaffidi, a spokeswoman for Mr. Rodriguez, appeared to offer an olive branch to the platform, signalling that the government is prepared to discuss making changes to the text of the bill.
“There is still an opportunity for Facebook to continue to work with the government and parliamentarians,” she said. “Tech giants know we are open to collaboration, so we look forward to further discussions with them.”
Anthony Housefather, a Liberal member of the Commons heritage committee, said it was not acceptable for Facebook to threaten legislators and millions of Canadians to try to force changes to Bill C-18.
But he also suggested the government might be willing to talk with Facebook about making changes to the wording of the bill.
“The law isn’t perfect. Amendments are still possible,” he said.
The Liberals accused the Tories of shielding Facebook from difficult questions when two executives appeared before the heritage committee on Friday.
Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux, vice-chair of the committee, said on Twitter that the Conservatives are trying to wreck C-18. He called for the online news bill to be amended and passed.
Peter Julian, the NDP heritage critic, said Facebook’s decision to signal it could block access to news does not “help their case at all.”
He said the tech giants were “reaping huge profits” and should help support news, including local papers.
The Conservative heritage critic Rachael Thomas was unavailable for comment.
Marc Dinsdale, head of media partnerships for Canada at Facebook, told the committee on Friday that if the platform were to decide to block access to news in Canada – if the bill passes in its current form – it would be open about it.
“If the bill passes as it is proposed, and we are forced to consider this option … we would try to do that with as much consultation and transparency as is possible,” he said.