Home » News » Editorial: Canada’s Online News Act is Misguided in Digital Regulation

Editorial: Canada’s Online News Act is Misguided in Digital Regulation

May 16, 2024 12:05 PM | News

Meta - Facebook

Facebook’s Meta logo sign is seen at the company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on, Oct. 28, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Tony Avelar)

Meta’s ban on news in Canada across Facebook and Instagram is approaching the one-year mark as another wildfire season is underway.

The news ban resulted from the federal government’s Online News Act. The Act forces tech giants (Meta and Google) to pay news outlets for information shared on their platforms. It officially came into effect on December 19, 2023, but Meta has been blocking news links since last summer in protest.

Google, on the other hand, reached an agreement with Ottawa last November to pay news outlets a combined $100 million annually (adjusted to inflation) and keep news accessible in Google Search. The amount is far less than what the government wanted, but officials still chalked it up as a win.

The deal even recently landed Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge on MacLean’s “Power List: Tech,” despite the ongoing holdout by Meta.

While any news organization would likely agree free traffic from Google is essential, it’s also crucial across Facebook and Instagram. Without the latter, newsrooms have seen a substantial decline in reach and advertising revenue. For smaller, independent outlets, it’s been nearly devastating. KelownaNow wrote in March the Act is “crushing independent media.”

The big news players in Canada — Bell Media, Rogers Sports & Media, Corus Entertainment and CBC — will likely be just fine without Meta’s participation in the Online News Act. In fact, they stand to gain upwards of $17,000 per newsroom employee from Google. CBC’s share has been capped at a smaller amount as the network and its news division receive more than $1 billion in annual federal funding.

ChrisD.ca estimates lost advertising revenues to our own operation to far exceed what Google would pay us under the Act, as a result of Meta’s decision to block news.

Wildfire season, public safety and critical news information

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited West Kelowna, B.C. last week as the province’s wildfire season begins. He called Meta an “irresponsible web giant,” as they continue to block critical news information from their platforms.

“This is a test moment where countries are going to have to realize that either we stand up for journalism and the profession faced with internet giants that refuse to actually participate in it, or we bow down to them and allow them to make billions more dollars, while degrading the safety, well-being and communities that thrive in our democracy,” Trudeau said.

Meta has previously said news articles make up less than 3% of what people see in their Facebook feed. They have also stated its users don’t come to Facebook or Instagram for news. While that data may be true on paper, in reality, Canadians see news in their feeds and become informed. While many may not specifically seek out news while scrolling their feeds, articles appeared and were clicked. Often, a like, share or comment would add to an increase in engagement on a particular news post, boosting its reach. On a good day, traffic to ChrisD.ca would soar exponentially from Facebook alone once a news story began racking up shares.

Prior to the public spat between the federal government and Meta, the tech giant funded the Facebook-Canadian Press News Fellowship. In 2021, they even invested $8 million over three years to support Canadian journalism. That investment has since been terminated as a result of the Online News Act. To say Meta has always been anti-news would be untrue. They had paid for journalism in the past, including previously striking a deal with Australian publishers, but being forced to pay Canadian outlets under the Act didn’t sit well with them. Their argument since then has been in order to comply with the law, news has been removed from their platforms.

“Facebook continues to make an unfortunate and reckless choice to block news on their platforms,” Minister St-Onge said in a statement to ChrisD.ca.

“Facebook is leaving disinformation and misinformation to spread on their platform, while choosing to block access to reliable, high-quality, independent journalism. I have encouraged Canadians to go directly to local news outlets and support Canadian journalists. Without fact-based news, Facebook is just leaving room for misinformation during need-to-know situations like wildfires, emergencies, local elections and other critical times for people to make decisions on matters that affect them. Canadians expect tech giants to pay their fair share for news.”

The disinformation Minister St-Onge mentions has been evident to anyone with the smallest amount of media literacy.

Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew has been the subject of numerous false stories across Facebook in recent months. Paid sponsored posts have labelled him as having an active arrest warrant, being charged with a federal crime and wanting to switch parties from the NDP to the Progressive Conservatives, among the outlandish claims. Such posts have been reported as false directly to Facebook, but have remained up as they don’t breach any of the company’s own rules. Meta has third-party fact-checkers to counter fake news, but they deemed the stories on Wab Kinew to be true and therefore didn’t remove them from the platform. No explanation as to why they weren’t removed was provided. As the posts are paid and sponsored, Meta earns revenue for clicks and impressions. Along with made-up headlines and memes acting as factual “news,” Canadians are exposed to some of the worst information not seen since the COVID pandemic.

Multiple requests for comment from both the Manitoba government and Premier Kinew’s office on the Online News Act and Manitoban’s restricted access to news across social media weren’t returned.

A recent analysis by the NiemanLab found that while news links are banned, screenshots of legitimate news stories are flourishing on Meta’s platforms.

Impact on next federal election, Canadian democracy

Canadians will head to the polls to elect a new federal government sometime by October 2025.

The lack of news on social media could prove challenging for voters attempting to make an informed decision at the ballot box. Federal parties can still publish their own material to Meta’s platforms, but critical fact-checking and reporting by professional journalists isn’t readily available.

“One of the major concerns is the quality of the information for the people who are going to make a decision,” said Colette Brin, professor of journalism at Laval University and director of the Centre for Media Studies, in a recent article by J-Source. “We can, for example, imagine that some people will not vote because they don’t have enough information that allows them to make an informed choice. So the vote turnout could be impacted.”

Ian Froese, provincial affairs reporter at CBC Manitoba, added: “And if more of this information gets out there and is unchecked by reporters, it sort of allows the parties to share whatever they want to the whole world.” On the other hand, “what some political parties say is misinformation or misleading” is not always the case, Froese said.

Government offers little help, hope for smaller news outlets

While the federal government had good intentions in creating the Online News Act, it has been a total disaster for small independent news outlets. Traffic and reach are vital, particularly for digital news companies. Meta’s actions, as a result of the Act, have been a gut punch.

Many Canadian newsrooms have shut their doors in the past year, as critical funding to stay afloat is needed now. Google’s financial contribution under the Online News Act won’t begin flowing until the fall, at the earliest.

Ottawa recently extended the Local Journalism Initiative for three years with an investment of $58.8 million. Under the program, “funding is available to eligible Canadian media organizations to hire journalists or pay freelance journalists to produce civic journalism for underserved communities.”

The government has also made available the Canadian Journalism Labour Tax Credit and the Canada Periodical Fund. Many of these programs tend to be catered to legacy news publications, such as newspapers. The application process for these programs is often cumbersome, long, and with months of reviews before a funding decision is made.

In ChrisD.ca‘s case, we’ve been turned down for two of these programs in the past, despite being told by industry association officials we would qualify and to apply. We’re awaiting a decision on a third funding application that’s been pending for nearly eight months.

By comparison, Manitoba’s TechUP grant program in 2022 saw our company approved for funding within a matter of weeks. The application process was a breeze and the funds were quickly dispersed.

What happens next?

There’s not much hope for the return of news to Facebook and Instagram. At least not without the federal government tweaking or repealing the flawed Online News Act. Ironically, a piece of legislation meant to help news media and journalism in Canada, has directly hurt the very parties it was crafted to assist, particularly smaller outlets. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone within the Department of Heritage to agree with that statement. They put the blame squarely on Meta and not the Act itself.

“Thanks to the Online News Act, newsrooms across the country will now be able to negotiate fairly for compensation when their work is used by the biggest digital platforms,” said department spokesperson Ariane Joazard-Bélizaire, in a statement to ChrisD.ca.

“It levels the playing field by putting the power of tech giants in check and ensuring that even our smallest news business can benefit through this framework and receive fair compensation for their work. This is a meaningful step towards a more sustainable news and information ecosystem for Canadians.”

The government says the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is analyzing if there’s still news available on Meta and therefore if it has to comply with the Act.

Meta has until June 16, 2024, to inform the government whether the Act applies to them or not. If the CRTC finds news is still available on Facebook or Instagram (including screenshots), Meta could eventually be regulated whether they like it or not, subjecting them to federal fines for non-compliance.

Until then, all we can do is hope Meta decides to come back to the negotiating table and sign a deal with the federal government for the return of news on their platforms. Or — and this is much more likely — the government realizes what they have created has done more harm than good and backpedals or makes concessions to the Online News Act. While there is little hope in either scenario, it’s Canadians and democracy who lose when accurate news and information are shielded from social media.

— ChrisD.ca