As Facebook Renews Threat to Block News Links, Government Shuts Down C-18 Debate

The Canadian government is moving to shut down debate on Bill C-18. This as Facebook openly says it could block news links in Canada.

The Canadian government’s war on the open internet is continuing. The latest development comes from the governments second wave assault. Specifically, it revolves around Bill C-18, Canada’s link tax law. As you might recall form our analysis, Bill C-18 would compel platforms to pay for linking, snippets, or even just making a reference to a news sites. It doesn’t matter what news site it is, it compels linking. After that, it then sets the bar high for news outlets to be permitted to even get access to any funding that was collected. The end result is that the link taxes, like Australia’s version, largely benefits the biggest players, tilting the playing field into their favour while completely upending the very concept of Fair Dealing completely.

Another valid point to make is that the legislation is written in such a way so that large platforms would ultimately be compelled to send funding to state sponsored troll farms. This point was raised by Google. We went back to the provisions in question and confirmed that this is a very valid concern. So, you really have a double-whammy of terrible news with this bill. On the one hand, it deprives smaller journalism players of any funding which is home to the last signs of life when it comes to real journalism, while at the same time, it also sends money directly into the hands of those intentionally publishing fake news and harmful misinformation.

More recently, we covered one of the hearings revolving around Bill C-18. It was a decision we ultimately regret doing because all it did was highlight, yet again, just how broken the committee process is at the Canadian Heritage Committee. While University law professor, Michael Geist, and a small journalism outlet tried to talk about the provisions of the bill and highlight some of the problems, it seems that effort to talk some sense into these MPs proved fruitless. After all, the concerns highlighted were met with political gamesmanship, showing that the “study” of the bill was only a “study” in name only.

Now, we are learning that the debate surrounding Bill C-18 is now repeating the disastrous history of Bill C-11. The government is apparently moving to shut down debate, blocking a huge list of potential witnesses who were trying to step forward and offer their views and points of view on the legislation. Geist noted these developments:

Minutes after Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez answers committee questions on the bill for the very first time this afternoon, the government – backed by the NDP – is expected to shut down further witnesses at the Bill C-18 hearings and move directly to clause-by-clause review. As a result, dozens of stakeholders and experts will be blocked from giving testimony to the Heritage committee. For a government that once prided itself on consultation, the decision to block further committee testimony is a remarkable abdication of the principles of a consultative, inclusive approach to legislative development.

The decision to shut down witnesses at the Bill C-18 hearing is particularly problematic given the importance of the bill (it has major implications for the free flow of information online and an independent press), the myriad of concerns (payments for links, risk to increased clickbait and misinformation, government intervention), and the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s estimate that the majority of revenues will go to the CBC and broadcast giants such as Bell.

Further, the committee study has been embarrassing. Today’s hearing will be only the fourth on a 44 page bill. By comparison, the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans has held ten meetings just on the role of science within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The hearings themselves have been a grab bag of witnesses often headlined by a government-backed non-Canadian witness invited to criticize the tech companies. The goal has been readily apparent: limit study of the actual bill and draw as little attention as possible to a lobbyist-driven piece of legislation that primarily benefits some of Canada’s richest companies.

Geist went on to offer a huge list of witnesses who could have provided insightful input on the debate, both for and against. He then concluded with the following:

This is just the tip of the iceberg of stakeholders and experts that could provide insight into the bill and help craft potential amendments. Note that this list includes both supporters and critics of the bill. This isn’t about lining up critics, but rather ensuring that Canada develops legislation that facilitates both original journalism and media innovation and limits potential harms. I don’t believe Bill C-18 meets those goals, but even supporters of the bill must surely admit that shutting down the hearings and blocking many relevant witnesses does not serve the interests of good public policy. Indeed, blocking stakeholders from participating in the process is a stain on Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and a government that once committed to public consultation and engagement.

So, this, once again, emphasizes just how much the government has really turned its back on public accountability, listening, and transparency. Instead, they are relying on an effort to ram through bills they want at any an all costs.

Shortly after the move to shut down debate, Facebook openly said that they may be forced to block the sharing of all news links in Canada. From Facebook:

Today, according to various reports, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage appears to have concluded calling witnesses for its study of the Online News Act (Bill C-18). We have always approached our engagement with Canadian public authorities on this legislation in the spirit of honest and fair debate, and so were surprised not to receive an invitation to participate, particularly given public comments by lawmakers that this law is targeted at Facebook. Without that opportunity, we want to share our concerns about this draft legislation in full transparency with Canadians who use Facebook and who could be impacted.

We believe the Online News Act misrepresents the relationship between platforms and news publishers, and we call on the government to rethink its approach to help create a more fair and sustainable news industry in the long-term.

Facebook went on to lay out what they would have said had they had the opportunity to appear before committee. After that, they made the following comments:

Canada is incredibly important to Meta. Canadians will always be able to use Facebook to connect with friends and family, to help build communities and to grow their businesses. But faced with adverse legislation that is based on false assumptions that defy the logic of how Facebook works, we feel it is important to be transparent about the possibility that we may be forced to consider whether we continue to allow the sharing of news content in Canada.

We urge the Canadian government to consider a policy response in support of public interest journalism that is fact-based and reflects the interests of not only a small handful of legacy publishers, but also those of small businesses, innovative independent publishers and the 21 million Canadians who use Facebook every day. As always, we remain open to working with the government on ways to achieve that goal.

So, a very stark warning from Facebook. The blocking of news links will, of course, be devastating to the whole news industry. In that vein, it’s probably a good thing that we see only a bare minimum trickle amount of traffic from Facebook, so it won’t actually affect Freezenet that much. At the same time, whatever opportunity there would be to grow on Facebook would effectively get taken away as well. So, if we are to grow Freezenet, we’d have to look elsewhere. Of course, that is not the situation for every news organization, many of whom likely have a very different level of dependency on Facebook. So, that will hurt those Canadian outlets even more.

Now, the government has made comments about this possible threat before. They basically responded to these potential threats as empty and said that they wouldn’t dare and that the move would be unpopular – as if to say that Facebook operated their business based on what are popular ideas in the first place which is hilarious in and of itself. So, chances are, the government will eventually make these same claims about how they are calling Facebook’s bluff.

At this stage, it would be in Facebook’s best interest to just follow through with that threat and block news links should the legislation pass. They have shown that they are showing their cards in the whole debate, so if they actually do so, then the only logical comment to the government would be “they said they were going to”. While it hurts us and organizations like us in the sense that we are becoming collateral damage in all of this, it really is the only outcome that would be logical at this stage. After all, the government and Bill C-18 supporters have proven to be incredibly belligerent throughout the debate and stuck to a very warped sense of how copyright law works – both at the national and international level. So, when the time comes, hopefully Facebook actually does follow through with this threat.

At any rate, Canada is definitely moving further into uncertain times. With the Online Harms proposal still in the pipeline, and seemingly destined to eventually follow the same path as Bill C-11 and Bill C-18, it’s looking like small online businesses in Canada faces an existential crisis. While our reach will effectively get cut off, the Online Harms proposal threatens to completely destroy Freezenet completely. It’s incredibly scary and it just seems like very little is going to stop it either.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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