Tech giant Meta has decided to block Canadians’ ability to view or share news content on Facebook and Instagram if Ottawa’s online news bill becomes law, The Globe and Mail has learned.
The company made the decision this week amid concerns that it is not clear what the financial burden imposed by the legislation, known as Bill C-18, will be.
The bill would make Google and Meta compensate news organizations for posting or linking to their work.
A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said the company is planning to remove Canadians’ access to both written and broadcast news after Bill C-18 becomes law, if changes to the legislation are not made. The tech giant said it would warn Canadians of changes to its services in advance.
The online news bill has passed through the Commons and is currently being considered in the Senate. It is expected to complete its passage through Parliament by summer.
What is Bill C-18, and how could it affect how Canadians use the internet?
“If the Online News Act passes in its current form, we will end the availability of news content on Facebook and Instagram for people in Canada,” said Lisa Laventure, a Meta spokesperson. “A legislative framework that compels us to pay for links or content that we do not post, and which are not the reason the vast majority of people use our platform, is neither sustainable nor workable.”
Posts with links to news articles make up less than 3 per cent of what Canadians see on their Facebook feeds, she added. She said this is not a significant source of revenue.
Facebook has warned that the system Bill C-18 would set up would allow publishers to charge it for as much content as they want to post on the platform, “with no clear limits.”
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said Meta’s decision to pull back from news is a threat intended to persuade the government to make changes that would reduce the amounts the tech platforms would be required to pay news organizations.
Facebook temporarily withdrew access to news in Australia in response to a similar law, and restored it after the Australian government agreed to make changes that lessened the legislation’s impact on the platform.
Mr. Rodriguez said it is “disappointing to see that Facebook has resorted to threats instead of working with the Canadian government in good faith.”
“This tactic didn’t work in Australia, and it won’t work here. Canadians won’t be intimidated. All we’re asking Facebook to do is negotiate fair deals with news outlets when they profit from their work,” he said. “This is part of a disappointing trend this week that tech giants would rather pull news than pay their fair share.”
Facebook has previously warned that withdrawing from news could be an option for it in Canada.
Publishers can currently share links and other content from their websites on their Facebook pages. The platform has argued this provides free marketing for news organizations, with an estimated value of more than $230-million.
For the past four weeks, Google has been blocking some Canadians’ access to news through its search bar, which it has said is part of a five-week-long test of a potential response to Bill C-18. Jason Kee, a Google public policy manager, told a Commons committee on Friday that “no decisions have been made” about whether it will restrict access to news permanently.
On Friday, MPs on the Commons heritage committee criticized Google for failing to warn the around 1.2 million Canadians included in the tests that it was restricting their access to news.
In a dramatic scene, Sabrina Geremia, the head of Google Canada, who was giving evidence to the committee via video link, was accused of failing to answer MPs’ questions and made to swear an oath partway through the two-hour hearing.
Chris Bittle, the Heritage Minister’s parliamentary secretary, told Ms. Geremia that “the members of this committee don’t think you are being truthful.”
He told her “you pretend to not know anything.”
“I think you’re being evasive,” he added. “You owe it to the Canadian people to answer these questions. You do billions of dollars worth of business here and Canadians expect answers. And we are here to ask them. So I expect answers.”
He said the committee may need to talk to the law clerk about her “wholly unacceptable” responses.
The committee also complained that Google had failed to comply with a request that it produce internal documents about its response to Bill C-18. Members said the company had produced only public information.
“Our experts and teams are going to continue to evaluate this document request,” Ms. Geremia said.
She admitted, after sustained questioning, that Google executives in the U.S. were aware of the decision to carry out the tests.
Last month, MPs voted to call Ms. Geremia and several other Google executives to testify for two hours. The others summoned were Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai; Kent Walker, its president of global affairs; and Richard Gingras, its vice-president of news.
But Google agreed to send only Ms. Geremia and Mr. Kee, who is based in Canada.
Conservative MP Martin Shields suggested Google had made a strategic mistake with the tests, and should have found another mechanism to resolve its objection to Bill C-18 “instead of playing games.” He said the tests had not gone down well with “grassroots” Canadians.
Conservative MP Kevin Waugh told Ms. Geremia: “We are not getting a lot of answers and we are very disappointed in your testimony today.” He said Canadians had not been warned about the tests.
“You’re a $1.2-, $1.3-trillion-dollar company and I think you’ve over-exceeded your boundaries,” he said.
Bloc Québécois MP Martin Champoux also expressed frustration over Ms. Geremia’s failure to answer questions, accusing Google of “disloyal bad-faith pressure tactics.”
Google’s Mr. Kee told the Commons committee that the company doesn’t know if it will be able to continue to link Canadians to news, because Ottawa’s online news bill will “radically change” the legal framework for providing free links to articles and broadcasts.
He said Google is testing a “range of potential responses” to Bill C-18.
Some Canadian news organizations, including The Globe, have already made compensation agreements with Big Tech platforms.