Meta’s President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg bowed out of a hearing on Monday in Canada’s House of Commons after lawmakers changed the event’s title from “The Response of Companies in the Information Technology Sector to Bill C-18” to a much more blatant “Tech Giants’ Current and Ongoing Use of Intimidation and Subversion Tactics to Evade Regulation in Canada and Across the World.”
Better known as the “Online News Act,” Bill C-18 would force internet companies to pay publishers for their content. After the name change and Clegg’s retreat, Meta is threatening to cut Canada off from new links altogether if the contested legislation passes, a tactic the tech giant used against Australia during the pandemic.
Before we discuss this further, however, let’s jump to this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner -- journalism’s flashiest night -- where speaker, comic and “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr. spoke earnestly about the state of the news industry. He was focused on America, but Wood’s words apply worldwide: “Most national stories in this country at some point were first a local story.
“And those stories were championed by reporters at outlets that have now folded,” Wood continued. “If we can’t find a way to pay local reporters, then we as a country are left with that many more blind spots to where the bull’s happening.”
It’s impossible not to acknowledge the trend of folding news outlets, especially local newsrooms, which citizens need to ensure that the powerful are kept in check and that democracy is upheld (not to mention local journalism’s responsibility to help us understand each other as a unified people, across communities large and small).
But the rise of Big Tech and social media has threatened not only local journalism, but journalism in general, by co-opting the ways people receive information and who gets paid for being on the ground, doing the actual reporting.
More and more social media users across the globe get their news from links on their newsfeeds than directly from the original publications. The sheer control tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple hold over the spread of news has become apparent in the destruction of local news outlets, the active gatekeeping of online content, and the overwhelming threat to advertising revenue.
But what about the argument that social media platforms are helping spread news to larger audiences?
While that may be true, the National Association of Broadcasters makes a noteworthy point: “Big Tech is also making money off the backs of local journalists through advertisements and sponsored content, and because they are business behemoths, they dictate what you see and how the creators of the content are compensated.”
A 2021 report by BIA Advisory Services found that local broadcasters lose an estimated $1.873 billion annually by providing their content to such platforms as Google Search and Facebook News Feed.
Going back to the proposed Canada legislation, C-18 would require Meta and other internet companies to pay news publishers when they reproduce their content -- that is, when a link appears on their sites. Companies that fail to pay publishers for their links could open themselves up to binding arbitration.
If passed, Canada’s Office of the Parliamentary estimates Google and Facebook combined would pay around CA$329.2 million (roughly $242.99 million USD) to news publishers per year.
“If the Online News Act passes in its current form, we will end the availability of news content on Facebook and Instagram for people in Canada,” a Meta spokesperson said in an email. “A legislative framework that compels us to pay for links or content that we do not post, and which are not the reason the vast majority of people use our platforms, is neither sustainable nor workable.”
It’s true, the majority of Canadian Facebook users don’t log in because of news, though the 40% using the app for news weekly (according to Statistia) doesn’t seem completely minimal. However, the lower number of news seekers (compared to Americans) combined with Canada being a smaller market for Facebook could actually help lawmakers in Canada and other countries pass similar legislation, even in the face of Facebook’s bullying.
It makes sense that Meta’s Clegg threw a tantrum over a bill that would help pay publishers for the content they produce and then share on social apps. Meta wants the current system to continue––a system that hurts journalists and then cripples democracy––as much as it wants pure domination over the spread of information.