Meta will block news for some users in Canada as it tries to stop the country’s government from passing a law that would force online groups to pay publishers and broadcasters for distributing their content.
The parent company of Facebook and Instagram said Friday it would begin testing on both platforms that would restrict “a small percentage” of users in Canada from viewing, posting or sharing news.
The move is a show of force as Ottawa prepares to pass the Online News Act, a bill that would force major tech groups to strike deals privately or through collective bargaining with Canadian media publishers and broadcasters. The proposed law would oblige internet platforms like Facebook and Google to mandatory arbitration if an agreement cannot be reached.
Tensions between Meta and the Canadian government have already flared after Nick Clegg, the company’s president of global affairs, threatened in May to block news in the region altogether if the law passes, which is expected by the end of the month .
Meta said Friday the test would allow it to prepare for that possibility. “Randomized testing will help us build an effective product solution to end news availability in Canada,” Meta wrote, adding that the testing would take several weeks, starting in the coming days.
“We made our choice,” he added. “While these product tests are temporary, we plan to permanently discontinue news content availability in Canada following the passage of Bill C-18.”
“The fact that Facebook continues to refuse to work with Canadians shows how deeply irresponsible and unreachable they are,” Pablo Rodriguez, the minister of Canadian heritage, wrote on Twitter on Friday. “Once again, this is a disappointing move from big tech and Canadians will not be intimidated by these tactics.”
Meta’s decision follows a similar move by Google earlier this year, which turned off news in its search engine for a few weeks for a small fraction — less than 4 percent — of Canadian users. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the decision a “terrible mistake” by Google.
“They’re playing games, frankly,” said Paul Deegan, CEO of industry association News Media Canada, of Google’s tactics.
Meta faced a backlash in early 2021 when it went on a temporary news blackout in response to a similar law in Australia, sparking controversy as the pages of certain government and emergency services health organizations were also blocked.
The Canadian bill has been touted by lawmakers as a way to level the playing field between major tech giants and the shrinking digital media industry, particularly by devolving more power to smaller local news players.
Meta claims its apps drive engagement with news publishers, not the other way around. It states that the Facebook feed in Canada generated more than 1.9 billion clicks in the 12 months to April 2022, “free marketing” worth more than $230 million.
In May, Clegg withdrew from a hearing in the Canadian Parliament’s Heritage Committee, stating that it was originally titled “The Response of Companies in the Information Technology Sector to Bill C-18”, but had been changed at the last minute to “Tech Giants’ Current and Continued Use of Intimidation and Subversion Tactics to Circumvent Regulations in Canada and Around the World”.
The company has proposed amendments to the bill, including one that would remove hyperlink sharing from its scope. Hyperlinks account for about 90 percent of the news posted on Meta, meaning the impact of the legislation would be severely mitigated if the change were passed.
“For someone with a hard paywall, you can get to the point where you collect the bill,” Deegan said. “Currently, it’s fair and fair and balanced.”
Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, warned that any news outage could hurt Meta’s advertising business.
“For a company that has presented itself for years as concerned with information integrity and disinformation and the harm that comes with it, they will literally block credible news from the feed and leave it to user-generated content,” he said.