OTTAWA — The head of Facebook Canada says it will try to avoid a repeat of the news blackout it imposed in Australia, so long as coming legislation doesn't it force it to dim the lights of democracy.
"It is never something we would ever want to do unless we really have no choice," Kevin Chan told a parliamentary committee hearing Monday.
Facebook blocked all news on its platform in Australia for five days last month in response to proposed legislation that would require digital giants to pay legacy media outlets for linking to their work.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Australian counterpart agreed to continue "co-ordinating efforts" to ensure Big Tech revenues are shared more fairly with creators and media after Facebook struck a deal with the Australian government on a revised bill, which still demands tech titans fork over cash for linked content.
The standoff down under shone a spotlight on Facebook's massive clout — despite the public relations disaster that ensued — as well as broader questions around shifting media business models and modes of information consumption.
Ottawa is working on a three-pronged response to the challenges that social media platforms and other major internet-based content providers pose to how media in Canada has been financed, regulated and policed in the past.
Part of that solution is a bill currently before the House of Commons to modernize the broadcasting regime in a way that could force online steaming platforms like Netflix and Spotify to make Canadian content more discoverable and to cough up financial contributions to bolster Canadian creators and producers.
Online hate is a focus of the second prong, as global observers continue to question Facebook's role in tragedies ranging from the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand to deadly military violence directed at Myanmar's Rohingya minority, along with racist posts in Canada.
The third prong seeks to address how major internet companies are taxed — with Australia providing a possible model — and in turn how traditional media companies are financially supported.
Facebook already props up struggling legacy media firms by directing traffic to their sites, and cumbersome regulation would hinder a free and open internet, Chan said.
He pointed to Ontario-based Village Media, whose CEO estimates that Facebook and Google generated 24 million page views for the online community news company in January, amounting to $480,000 in ad revenue. Facebook Canada has also announced investments of $18 million in sustainable business models over six years.
Critics argue that paying publishers for links that they or their readers choose to post on social media — effectively a form of promotion — is backwards.
Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement to The Canadian Press that the government is consulting with France and Australia over the "market imbalance between news media organizations and those who benefit from their work."
"News is not free and has never been. Our position is clear: publishers must be adequately compensated for their work and we will support them as they deliver essential information for the benefit of our democracy and the health and well-being of our communities," he said.
In Australia, Facebook secured concessions in an agreement with the government that allows more room for private deals between Facebook and media firms — such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp — and an extra round of negotiation with publishers before binding arbitration kicks in.
But settling the dust-up did little to pacify concerns over the might and motivations of Big Tech.
“People are increasingly concerned about the power of the web giants and the ravages of the spread of online hate speech, the impact of unfair competition of these giants on local media, and the total lack of justice when people work hard to pay their fair share and multinational web companies do everything to circumvent the rules," said New Democrat MP Heather McPherson.
She accused the Liberal government of fostering a "cosy relationship" with digital giants that protects platforms' profits at the expense of local media and Canadian taxpayers.
The government hopes to table legislation on fair remuneration by the end of the parliamentary sitting. It aims to put forward a bill on online hate speech within weeks.
Current Criminal Code provisions barring hate speech can seem increasingly feeble against the daily tide of content that washes up online.
“Bigoted speech is always out there," said University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon in an interview. "But the rise of social media as the principal platforms for personal and public engagement has helped hateful views of different kinds move more into the mainstream."
Moon pointed to algorithms on sites such as YouTube — owned by Google — that can wind up fanning inflammatory video posts.
"In order to try to maintain the attention of the viewer, they make suggestions of videos that are more and more extreme because people are often more and more engaged and it holds their attention when it happens," he said.
Chan took issue with the idea of Facebook as an essential source of news or internet portal for most Canadians. He cited a Ryerson Leadership Lab study showing that about one-quarter of the population gets its news from Facebook, coming in below several other sources including television, which topped the list.
"It’s not the case that Facebook is somehow synonymous to the internet or somehow synonymous with access to news," Chan said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2021.
Facebook funds a fellowship that supports journalism positions at The Canadian Press.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press