Skip to main content

The Liberals have accused Facebook of “modern-day robber baron tactics” by signalling it could block Canadians’ access to news sites unless Ottawa makes changes to a proposed law that would require it to compensate media outlets for their work.

At the House of Commons heritage committee Friday, the Heritage Minister’s parliamentary secretary, Chris Bittle, said the “shameful” and “shocking” methods used by the company were an attempt to force the federal government to revise Bill C-18.

Facebook repeated its warning from last week that if the bill proceeds without changes, it may block Canadians from sharing or viewing news content on its platform.

“Faced with adverse legislation … we feel it is important to be transparent about the possibility that we may be forced to consider whether we continue to allow the sharing of news content on Facebook in Canada,” Kevin Chan, the company’s head of public policy, told the committee.

Bill C-18, which is modelled on a similar Australian law, would make tech giants such as Facebook and Google compensate news organizations for carrying their work.

Facebook argues this is unfair because it cannot control what links people post to news on their pages.

“We would be forced to pay publishers for giving them free marketing on Facebook,” Mr. Chan said. “This would be a most peculiar and unorthodox arrangement.”

In what is likely to be interpreted as a conciliatory gesture, Laura Scaffidi, spokesperson for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, said after the committee that her department is always “open to ways to make this bill stronger.”

“There is still an opportunity for Facebook to continue to work with the government and parliamentarians,” she added. “We look forward to further discussions with the platform.”

The Trudeau government wants to regulate like it’s 1968

Mr. Bittle said Facebook, now known as meta, had put Australians in jeopardy by removing access to public information sites and suggested they were threatening to mirror these tactics in Canada.

“You put Australians’ lives at risk and then you come here and you threaten the same thing to Canadians,” he said. “It’s absolutely shocking. This is modern-day robber baron tactics meta is demonstrating.”

Liberal MP Antony Housefather said that in Australia, Facebook had not only taken down access to news. He alleged it had removed over 170,000 pages including those belonging to the department of fire and emergency services, Suicide Prevention Australia, domestic violence support pages, the kids cancer project and the royal children’s hospital.

Mr. Housefather demanded assurances that Facebook would not take down public information sites in Canada, asking if in Australia it had indeed been a “technical error.”

Mark Dinsdale, head of media partnerships for Canada at Facebook, replied that if the platform were to decide to block access to news in the country – if the bill passes in its current form – it would be transparent 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. “What that means I certainly am not in a position to elaborate, but I can certainly reiterate that any mistakes that were done in Australia were exactly that – mistakes.”

The committee decided this week to hold more sessions after Facebook and others complained they had not be asked to give their views on Bill C-18 in Parliament.

Mr. Chan insisted he and his colleagues had come before the committee to talk about the substance of the bill, but he struggled to finish many of his replies after being interrupted during aggressive questioning.

In his prepared remarks, he made an oblique reference to the slump in Facebook’s share value this week, as well as the growth in TikTok’s revenues.

Earlier this week, meta posted quarterly results showing a drop in revenue to US$27.7-billion in the third quarter compared to $29-billion a year earlier.

“In the current economic climate, and as we prioritize long-term investments in the metaverse and in the growth of short-form video in response to competition and user preferences, we are being asked to acquiesce to a system that lets publishers charge us for as much content as they want to supply, at a price with no clear limits,” Mr. Chan said.

NDP and Conservative MPs expressed concern that many community newspapers, which have seen mass closures, would not currently qualify for compensation because they do not employ the required two members of staff.

Annick Charette, president of the Fédération nationale des communications et de la culture, said preserving local papers was important to communities. She said their standard of journalism was a more important benchmark for compensation than the number of staff a paper employs.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe