Tech giant Meta has learned from the mistakes it made blocking online news from Facebook in Australia, when it accidentally limited access to emergency services pages, a company representative said Monday.
Rachel Curran, head of public policy for Meta Canada, said the company has put together a content-blocking team that is getting ready to end the availability of news on its social media platforms Facebook and Instagram should the Liberal government’s online news bill pass.
Curran told the House of Commons heritage committee the company will remove news in a way that is careful, responsible and transparent.
“It’s absolutely our intention to not make the same errors in Canada that we made in Australia,” Curran said Monday.
In 2021, Facebook temporarily blocked Australians from sharing news stories in response to a government bill that asked Google and Facebook to contribute to journalism.
Australian news organizations could not post stories and people who tried to share existing news stories received notifications saying they were blocked from doing so. It also blocked some government communications, including messages about emergency services, and some commercial pages.
“Some of the things that were mistakenly scoped in Australia, we’re working very hard to make sure we do not do that this time,” said Curran, who was a policy director to former prime minister Stephen Harper.
She said the team is working to meet the definition of news, and not apply any potential blocks to government pages, emergency services or community organizations.
If passed, Bill C-18 would require tech giants to pay Canadian media companies for linking to or otherwise repurposing their content online.
The bill is currently at the committee stage in the Senate.
Meta has previously said it could lead the company to stop linking to news in Canada.
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The company says less than three per cent of what people see in their Facebook feeds are posts with links to news articles and that many of its users believe that is already “too much” news.
Kevin Chan, global policy director for Meta, said to the committee that publishers benefit more from Facebook than it does from publishers. He said Meta gave “free marketing” to publishers that the company believes is worth about $230 million.
Liberal MP Chris Bittle said Meta’s appearance at the committee showed their “contempt for democracy.” He said Meta “misled” the country by saying it provided publishers “free advertising.”
“You leave out the part that your company is engaged in monopolistic practices that takes the vast majority of ad revenue so that ‘free advertising’ is worthless,” said Bittle, who is parliamentary secretary to the Canadian Heritage Minister.
The Liberal government has accused Meta of intimidating Canadians as a way to retaliate over regulation.
“Facebook already has deals with news organizations, and Bill C-18 will ensure these deals are more transparent, fair, and that the tech giants are accountable to Canadians,” said Laura Scaffidi, press secretary to Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, in a statement.
“It’s not surprising, but disappointing, that Facebook continues to pull from their Australian playbook.”
During the committee meeting, Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner said if journalism is blocked from Instagram and Facebook then people will be forced to seek out information elsewhere and it could lead to a rise in misinformation and disinformation.
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But the tech giant said it’s a business decision.
“We believe that news has a real social value. The problem is that it doesn’t have much of an economic value to Meta. That’s the real concern with this legislation,” Curran said.
“So if we are being asked to compensate news publishers for material that has no economic value to us, that’s where the problem is.”
But News Media Canada, which advocates for the media industry, disagreed.
“Meta derives real economic value from news, and they should compensate publishers for that value, so we can reinvest in high-quality, fact-based content,” said Paul Deegan, president of News Media Canada, in a statement.
“Real journalism by real journalists costs real money.”
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press.
Meta funds a limited number of fellowships that support emerging journalists at The Canadian Press.