Facebook warns Canada against taking Australia's 'aggressive' tack in making them pay for news content

Facebook and Google now account for 80 per cent of digital advertising revenue in Canada, according to the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project.

OTTAWA — Representatives of Facebook Canada warned Ottawa against the hasty introduction of rules that would force social media giants to pay for news content shared on their platforms, after Australia took an overly “loud and aggressive” tack on the same issue.

Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook Canada, told the House of Commons heritage committee on Friday that the Australian government had effectively announced its plans to force the company to pay for the news content with minimal warning, souring negotiations and causing negative outcomes for both sides.

“I was personally a bit troubled that those conversations had not happened before we heard very loud and aggressive commentary about us stealing content — which was false,” Chan said. “And I think that if we had had conversations, and productive ones, earlier, if we had actually talked to each other, we probably would be in a much better situation than we are today.”

His comments come as Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has signalled an intention to introduce similar rules in Canada. France has also promised similar policies, which call on web giants like Facebook and Google to pay publishers for the content shared or curated on their platforms.

Facebook has called the new rules unworkable, and has threatened to pull its news service in retaliation. Google also disputes the regulations, and on Jan. 22 threatened to withdraw its search engine service in Australia.

The issue is part of an international fight between U.S. tech giants and domestic publishers and broadcasters, who say that the fast-growing platforms have been siphoning off revenues as readership goes increasingly online.

Facebook and Google now account for 80 per cent of digital advertising revenue in Canada, according to the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project. Meanwhile, publishers have struggled to replace a collapse in print advertising revenue over the last 20 years, leading to widespread retrenchment. Those companies have in turn been lobbying Ottawa to make amends, claiming that they drive a substantial amount of traffic and are therefore entitled to a bigger chunk of the profits.

“Newspapers are dropping like flies in this country, and this is one of the biggest issue, if not the biggest issue right now,” Conservative MP Kevin Waugh said.

“They see their product, exclusively on Facebook, and they’re not getting their due share of revenue from it.”

Guilbeault, in an interview with the National Post in September, said his office was working on rules that would force tech giants to pay for news content, without expressing how exactly it would be enforced. The minister said he would push back against what he called the “bullying attitudes” of American tech behemoths, after they threatened to pull services in Australia.

Chan said that Facebook’s opposition to the rules is “mechanical” in nature: Facebook doesn’t actually control the news its users share, and so it would ultimately be forced to pay for the use of commodity for which it does not control. Executives at the company have said their business model simply couldn’t withstand such uncertainty.

“If we are then required to pay for what they share, then you can appreciate how quickly that breaks down, and we’re unable to accommodate.”

 Kevin Chan, head of public policy at Facebook Canada, appears, virtually, before the House of Commons heritage committee on January 29, 2021.

Chan and other Facebook executives have also claimed that news outlets provide only a small amount of traffic on its platform. Facebook also links back to the website of the publisher, which in turn generates huge amount of traffic for newspapers, they say.

“Newspaper publishers in Canada benefit from free distribution on Facebook, which we estimate to be on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars,” Chan said.

Also on Friday, Chan told the committee that Facebook would be welcome to new regulations from Ottawa to control what is and is not considered acceptable speech online.

His comments come after some have called for stricter rules around online hate speech, bullying and harassment, saying companies or governments ought to have clear guidelines around what people can say online.

“For having private companies decide what is and isn’t acceptable speech online is not sustainable longer term, and lacks transparency and accountability,” Chan said.

Guilbeault, in an earlier testimony before the committee on Friday, said new rules around online speech would be unveiled in the spring. He also suggested that tech companies were seeking government regulation as a way to sidestep recent criticism that they’ve done too little to curb online hate themselves.

“Why are the platforms like Facebook asking that the government regulate online hate speech? Between you and I, I think it’s to maybe share the heat that comes from all the pressure that all those companies are feeling right now,” he said.

Chan, along with former CBC executive Richard Stursberg, wrote an op-ed for the Globe and Mail in November calling for consistent regulations across developed nations to restrict

“YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and the rest need to meet the same standards,” they wrote. “The alternative is a fractured internet, governed by private rules rather than public ones.”

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques