Following the passage of the Online News Act by the Canadian Senate, Meta has confirmed its decision to remove news content from Facebook and Instagram for all users in Canada. It is still uncertain whether Google will follow suit for its platforms.
The purpose of the act, also known as Bill C-18, is to compel Google and Facebook to share revenues with publishers for news content appearing on their platforms. By completely removing news content, these companies would be exempt from the legislation.
In a blog post on Thursday, Facebook stated, “Today, we are confirming that news availability will be ended on Facebook and Instagram for all users in Canada prior to the Online News Act (Bill C-18) taking effect.” They reiterated that content from news outlets, including publishers and broadcasters, would no longer be accessible on their platforms in compliance with Bill C-18.
If Google takes similar action, Canadian users may also witness the disappearance of news content from their Google searches. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez engaged in last-minute discussions with Google on Thursday afternoon to address the matter.
Rodriguez emphasized that Facebook currently has no obligations under the act, and the government will initiate a regulatory and implementation process after Royal Assent of Bill C-18. He questioned who would stand up for Canadians against tech giants if the government fails to do so.
Although Bill C-18 does not specifically mention Google and Meta, it applies to companies that “make news content available” and have a “significant bargaining power imbalance” with news businesses. If Google and Meta cease to provide news content, they would no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the bill, and thus, they would not be obligated to share revenues.
The possibility of news blocking by Google and Facebook was a factor considered by Bell Media when it recently laid off 1,300 employees, including cuts to its news operations. Bell’s chief legal and regulatory officer, Robert Malcolmson, stated that the bill could be rendered ineffective if the two tech giants block news on their platforms.
Google has also warned that it may terminate or alter existing agreements with Canadian news outlets in response to the bill. Through its Google News Showcase program, the company currently maintains deals with 150 news publishers, including the National Post’s publisher, Postmedia, which supports the legislation. While the financial terms of these deals have not been disclosed, Google pays news outlets for licensing content in the program.
Google expressed its hope to avoid removing news content, with spokesperson Shay Purdy stating that the company is “doing everything we can to avoid an outcome that no one wants.” Google has proposed changes to the bill to the Liberal government but claims that none of their concerns have been addressed. They continue to seek urgent collaboration with the government to find a way forward.
If the companies do remove news content, it is unclear what actions the Liberal government can take. When asked about this possibility earlier in the month, Rodriguez mentioned options such as ceasing government advertising on the platforms, launching new programs, or increasing funding for existing programs. He also warned of potential reputational consequences for the platforms if they block news content.
The bill aims to force Google and Facebook into commercial negotiations for revenue-sharing with news publishers. One of Google’s concerns with the legislation is the lack of a clear path to exemption.
Bill C-18 draws inspiration from Australia’s legislation, under which Google and Facebook reached agreements with publishers to avoid being designated as digital platforms subject to the News Media Bargaining Code. Similarly, in Canada, companies with commercial agreements will seek exemption from mandatory negotiations by applying to the CRTC. If the deals meet government-set criteria, such as providing fair compensation, the CRTC will grant exemption.
However, under Bill C-18, platforms will automatically be subject to the code before the exemption process begins. Google has previously requested “a clear and attainable path to exemption” as a minimum requirement.
Supporters of the bill celebrated its passage on Thursday. News Media Canada, a publishers’ group, stated that the legislation allows news businesses, regardless of size, to engage in fair market negotiations with dominant search and social media companies for news content. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that the legislation provides a framework for fair negotiations between online platforms and homegrown news businesses.
Marla Boltman, the executive director of advocacy group Friends, commended Parliament for successfully passing the bill despite the threats of news blocking from Google and Facebook. The group hopes that these foreign tech giants will now abandon their intimidation tactics and show respect for the Canadian democratic process.