Meta’s News Blockade: Security Concern or Financial Motive?

Ottawa passed the Online News Act (C-18) on June 22, which aims to establish revenue sharing between web giants and the media.

It requires companies like Google and Meta to compensate Canadian media for the use of their content on their platforms. In response, since August 1, Meta has blocked the sharing of links to media content on its platforms.

The consequences of Meta blocking news are significant. Media outlets can no longer broadcast their news on its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, reducing traffic to their own websites and worsening their already fragile financial situation. Citizens, who have not yet left social networks, are exposed to less media content.

The media made the difficult bet that citizens would opt to consult their sites directly to be aware of the news instead of going through social networks. But we know that it is difficult to change your habits.

The bill, as well as the subsequent blocking of news by Meta, received significant media coverage from various angles. After the denunciations of attacks on democratic life, a new argument consists in saying that this blocking endangers the safety of citizens in the country, in particular in the context of forest fires. Most recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Meta on Monday of prioritizing his profits over the safety of Canadians by blocking local news. “I want to emphasize how frustrating it is for me, that Facebook continues to block access to local wildfire news for Canadians who need it,” he said.

But what is it really?

PhD student and lecturer in social and public communication at the University of Quebec in Montreal, the author studies public controversies, lobbying and political communication.

A public safety issue?

Recently, the media has thus adopted a rhetoric of the “rise in generality” to treat the tug of war between the government and the giants of technology.

This rhetorical device consists of inserting a particular interest into a greater interest. Thus, the media do not only seem to defend their own interests (which are here financial), but the well-being of a large part of the population.

For example, reports on the Yellowknife wildfires emphasize access to media content. Others on the police services demonstrate that the scope of the information they share, especially during kidnappings or disappearances, is greatly reduced due to the measures imposed by Meta. The media thus argue that blocking news not only compromises their financial stability, but also public safety, thus being in the general interest.

The tech giants are both portrayed as monster entities that hoard advertising revenue, while being essential players in maintaining public safety. By adopting this rhetoric, the media recognize in spite of themselves their relationship of dependence, certainly unfair, with the platforms. Indeed, the media profited from the use of these platforms to increase their traffic and their income.

That said, to understand the possible solutions and overcome this situation, let’s take a step back to understand the Online News Act (C-18).

Giants with different business models

The Online News Act (C-18) aims to establish the basis for revenue sharing between web giants and the media. In other words, the GAFAMs will have to pay (according to terms to be established) a certain amount for each news link or content relayed on their platforms.

Some giants, such as Google (Google News) and Microsoft (MSN News), scrape content from news organizations to their own news sites. Thus, thanks to this new law, they will have to compensate them and pay an amount for the content shared on their platforms.

However, Meta’s business model is different. It is its users who share the news links, not the company itself. Meta thus has little control over what is shared on its platform (except for the possible removal of violent content or misinformation). Including in the same category all the web giants, which have different business models, was a mistake on the part of the government.

Let’s say you have to pay $1 for each person entering your house. What would you do ? You would bar the door. That’s kind of what Meta does by blocking news. It’s a business decision, based on their lack of control over the links shared on their platforms. They do not break the law, but submit to it. A bit like an individual will not pay gasoline tax if he does not consume it.

Australia has been there

In this war, the eyes of the world are on Canada. If Meta agrees to pay Canadian news organizations, it would set a precedent for other legislation that might attempt to pass similar laws.

California, Indonesia, South Africa have recently presented pieces of legislation to this effect, while the United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand and the European Union have indicated their intention to do the same.

Australia has also gone ahead. In February 2021, Meta had blocked news content from its platforms. However, unlike Canada, the blockage took place before the law was officially adopted.

Return to the drawing board

Whatever our opinion on the justification of Meta, the consequences of this blocking are harmful for all. Moreover, it seems obvious that an individual solution will not solve this structural problem. Thus, asking citizens to stop consulting social networks to go directly to news sites or asking them to join new so-called public platforms is not a sufficient answer.

Like what was done in Australia, the solution will have to reflect the complexity of the problem. A single solution cannot account for the diversity of the Canadian media landscape, as well as that of the web giants. The government should instead force the platforms to negotiate with each press organization for suitable solutions: direct financial support to the media, adjustment of algorithms, training, transparency, etc. The options are many. The Online News Act addresses a real problem, but offers an imperfect solution. And so far, everyone is a loser.

By passing this bill, Ottawa was well aware that Meta was going to block news links: not only did the Australian experience prove that the giant was not bluffing, but Meta announced its intentions at the very beginning of the process. . The government should have been less reckless, taking the Australian experience as an example, going back to the drawing board and negotiating realistic solutions with the tech giants for the good of Canadian journalism.

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Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.