Today, Meta announced it is beginning the process of ending Canadians’ access to news publications as a consequence of Bill C–18, now known as the Online News Act. This is an entirely predictable consequence of the Act, which requires big tech companies like Google and Meta to decide between having an unpredictable bill for all their news links, or having a fixed cost of zero dollars. In the fullness of time, we will find out if fewer Canadians are using their services because they cannot use them for news coverage, but it seems to me like a safe gamble on the part of Meta and, soon, Google.1
When I tried finding third-party coverage of this announcement, I turned to Google — DuckDuckGo’s news results are filled with articles syndicated at MSN and Yahoo — and had a hard time finding a non-wire report from a Canadian publication. Many were either from Canadian Press or Reuters. Happily, CBC News’ Darren Major filed an original report, but it did not take me long to find problems with both the reporting and the subjects it profiled:
Social media giant Meta says it has officially begun ending news availability on its platforms in Canada starting Tuesday.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, has been signalling the move was coming after the government passed its Online News Act, Bill C-18, in June.
Those “signals” include the company stating outright that “news availability will be ended on Facebook and Instagram for all users in Canada”, which is not so much a nod as it is a direct confirmation. The news here, as it were, is that Meta followed through on things it said repeatedly.
The law requires big tech giants like Google and Meta to pay media outlets for news content they share or otherwise repurpose on their platforms.
This is not accurate. It requires operators of large social media businesses and search engines to pay for news links either shared by users or which publishers have permitted to be indexed. The tech company does not meaningfully share links itself. This is more fuzzy around links found through search engines, but publishers have control over whether they want their articles to be included in results.
Major’s introduction to this story is not great. Perhaps even more objectionable material can be found in quotations from various elected officials. For example:
Newly appointed Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said Meta has refused to participate in the regulatory process.
“This is irresponsible,” she said in a statement. “They would rather block their users from accessing good quality and local news instead of paying their fair share to news organizations.”
This legislation demands preposteriously that publications are owed some kind of “fair share” of revenue from referral sources, but nothing about that reflects how the web works. This feels like the “Mad Men” clip where Don tells Peggy “that is what the money is for”, except it is links.2
The Canadian media landscape sucks. The online ad marketplace sucks. I concede that publications regularly post links to their own work on social media and permit search engines to index their websites out of an expectation that we will find them there, and that it is currently hard to know the true value of these third party referrals to the revenue streams of publishers. But this legislation is a bad way to address that imbalance, and the dichotomy St-Onge presents is wrong. Canadians are not being blocked from accessing news, and there is no “fair share” to be had.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre put the responsibility squarely at the feet of the Liberal government.
“It’s like Nineteen Eighty-Four,” he said. “Who would ever have imagined that in Canada the federal government would pass laws banning people from effectively seeing the news?”
Predictably, Poilievre is just plain wrong. Even the most charitable reading of this statement — one which moves the word “effectively” to between “would” and “pass” — is a ludicrous bad faith reading of this Act and it is embarrassing that political rivals use this sort of language instead of trying to navigate the nuances of a particular topic.
Martin Champoux, heritage critic for the Bloc Québécois, accused Meta of trying to intimidate parliament into rescinding the law.
“This deplorable decision serves no one. In fact, the big losers are the users who will be deprived of their news on social networks,” Champoux said in a statement in French.
It is no secret that Meta has been arguing against the Online News Act since it was first proposed. But what is missing from this criticism is that Meta has actually been making good points all along, and the law is very bad. I am obviously no fan of Meta’s and I trust policymakers more than seemingly most people in the technology commentary space, but even I can acknowledge this Act is poor and these are reasonable concerns:
“In order to provide clarity to the millions of Canadians and businesses who use our platforms, we are announcing today that we have begun the process of ending news availability permanently in Canada,” Rachel Curran, Meta’s head of public policy in Canada, said in a statement.
“In the future, we hope the Canadian government will recognize the value we already provide the news industry and consider a policy response that upholds the principles of a free and open internet,” Curran said in her statement.
This is completely fair. As Casey Newton wrote earlier this year, there are plenty of other ways the government can support Canadian media without resorting to a link tax.3 But they decided to go after a fundamental component of the web in a way that will, as the Liberal Party acknowledges, create a precedent:
St-Onge said the government will continue to “stand its ground” and suggested other countries are considering drafting similar legislation.
This is a dangerous piece of legislation — one which the government has dug in its heels for and pushed through despite protests from open web activists and major corporations alike. You do not have to be a fan of Google or Meta to recognize how flawed it is. You only need to see the obvious conclusion that requiring sources of web traffic to pay up is going to make them less likely to play that role.
This is entirely unrelated to the topic at hand, but I think it is fascinating how successful the “Meta” brand has become compared to, say, Google’s attempt to introduce Alphabet. To be fair, the commitment to the “Alphabet” branding is pretty weak; the Meta website is more than just a landing page for investors. But something I noticed last week is how Meta still uses “Facebook” branding on its quarterly earnings statements (PDF). Place your bets now on whether “X” takes off. I think everyone except the Elon Musk fanbase will keep calling it Twitter, and keep calling posts “tweets”. ↥︎
It is truly unfortunate that crappy Instagram gurus of business and men’s advice take “Mad Men” literally. ↥︎
A paid link, unfortunately, but I believe you know where to find a workaround. ↥︎