Australia made a deal to keep news on Facebook. Why couldn’t Canada? | CBC News

Back in February 2021, Facebook blocked news on its platforms across Australia to protest a proposed law that would have forced it, along with Google, to pay media companies for stories appearing on their sites.

About a week later, Facebook and Google struck a deal with the Australian government and the restriction stopped. Yet in Canada, such a deal never materialized.

Instead, Ottawa passed the Online News Act in June, requiring tech giants to pay news outlets for content they share or otherwise repurpose.

And on Tuesday, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, responded by announcing it had officially begun to end news availability on its platforms in Canada.

So did Canada miss an opportunity to secure its own deal and avoid the current situation?

‘Fundamental misreading’

Before Ottawa passed its law, Meta and Google had both threatened to block the sharing of news on their platforms in Canada. 

“It feels like there were many that put a great deal of stock in the Australian situation and thought that, ‘Well, this is all just a bluff and they will ultimately come back to the table,'” said University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, who is also the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law. 

WATCH | Meta blocks news content to Canadians: 

Meta moves to block news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada

Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, says it is going ahead with a plan to remove news content from its platforms in Canada. It signalled the move was coming when the government passed Bill C-18, known as the Online News Act.

As Geist pointed out in a recent blog, some Canadian industry leaders, lobbyists and academics, were, before the bill passed, assuring the Senate that Meta would back down.

“I think it was a fundamental misreading of what took place in Australia,” he said.

The legislation in Australia, the News Media Bargaining Code, governs conduct between Australian news businesses and “designated” digital platforms. 

Originally, however, the bill that was being discussed was similar to what the Canadian law is now, meaning Meta and Google would have been legislated to pay news media companies if their stories appeared on their platforms.

That’s what prompted Facebook’s temporary ban. 

Front pages of Australian newspapers are displayed featuring stories about Facebook in Sydney, on Friday. In a surprise retaliatory move Thursday, Facebook blocked Australians from sharing news stories, escalating a fight with the government over whether powerful tech companies should have to pay news organizations for content. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Front pages of Australian newspapers show stories about Facebook. In 2021 the social media giant blocked Australians from sharing news stories, escalating a fight with the government. (Rick Rycroft/The Associated Press)

But the ban, coming before the legislation had passed, gave the Australian government some space to negotiate, says Diana Bossio, an associate professor in media and communications at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology.

“And they took out one really, really vital part of the legislation. And that’s ‘designation,'” she said.

Now, Australia’s Treasurer can designate, and thus force, digital platforms like Meta and Google to pay for news. 

But Meta and Google have yet to be designated.

“That’s why Meta pulled that stunt [in 2021],” Bossio said. “It didn’t want to be forced by the legislation to pay.”

But, under the implied threat of being designated, both Meta and Google made separate deals with a series of media companies in Australia. Those deals, according to Jordan Guiao, research fellow at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, have resulted in more than 30 commercial agreements at approximately $200 million in value to news organizations.

WATCH | Facebook blocks Australian news:

Facebook wipes news from Australian feeds in battle over paying for content

Facebook feeds in Australia were stripped of news posts during a fight over government plans to make technology giants pay for sharing news content and there are concerns something similar could happen in Canada.

The Canadian law doesn’t have that flexibility, says Geist.

“That was a pretty important difference — where the Australian government had basically left itself with the wiggle room to engage in that kind of negotiation,” Geist said. “The Canadian government, not so much.”

Alfred Hermida, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia, says, in Australia, the threat of being legislated may have led the platforms to make more deals with news organizations than they would have done before.

“But they still made those deals on their own terms individually, privately deciding who got money, who didn’t get money, and how much money to each outlet,” he said.

“And the government wasn’t involved at all.”

For both Meta and Google, it’s not about the money but the principle of being regulated and the precedent it might set in other jurisdictions, Hermida said.

That’s why Hermida says it’s hard to see a solution in Canada that would bring Canadian news back to Meta. Meta fears that if it agrees to be legislated in Canada, then it would be pressured to be legislated in other places, Hermida says.

“This is not just a Canadian story. This is a global story,” he said. 

“Given that other countries and places in the U.S. are looking at this as well, [Meta and Google] don’t want to be in a situation where they set a precedent saying, ‘Yes, we accept this law and we will abide by it.'”

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