Not Everyone Got Affected by the News Link Block on Facebook

It may be easy to assume that absolutely anything related to news got impacted on Facebook. There is still some news, however.

After news links got blocked on Facebook, some users may have noticed a difference on the platform, but it wound up hardly being the deal breaker the legislation supporters hoped it would be for users. In fact, some have gone so far as to say that Facebook is actually better off without news links on the platform.

Though the news links block affected many big and small, not every outlet got impacted. Some news sources appear on Facebook and continue to keep chugging along despite almost everyone else vanishing. For instance, when I check out the Facebook page, Arstechnica, that pages news content is still accessible to me. There are other examples too. The Facebook page for Kotaku still appears to be accessible to me. The Facebook page for Polygon still appears to be accessible. To my personal relief, Freezenet’s Facebook page is still accessible too.

Conversely, and just to double-check that my IP address or login happened to get missed, I checked the CBC News webpage that most assuredly got hit. That page is blank to me. The page for the New York Times to me is empty. The Facebook page for BBC News? Yup, to me, that’s been wiped clean too.

If you are Canadian, you’ll probably confirm my findings (for international users, more pages will still be up because you aren’t affected). Canadian’s might look at these findings and ask what is going on? Was Facebook not thorough and missed some news sites? Not really. As you might recall back when Meta announced that it would be blocking news links, what they said was that they will be doing is using the legislation as guidance to figure out what constitutes a news source and what does not.

When we wrote our analysis when the bill was first tabled, we noted certain eligibility requirements for the legislation. Obviously, the bill went through multiple amendments, so we’ll refer to the Royal Assent version instead. Section 27 of the Bill contains the following:

Eligible news businesses — designation

27 (1) At the request of a news business, the Commission must, by order, designate the business as eligible if it

(a) is a qualified Canadian journalism organization as defined in subsection 248(1) of the Income Tax Act, or is licensed by the Commission under paragraph 9(1)‍(b) of the Broadcasting Act as a campus station, community station or native station as those terms are defined in regulations made under that Act or other categories of licensees established by the Commission with a similar community mandate;

(b) produces news content of public interest that is primarily focused on matters of general interest and reports of current events, including coverage of democratic institutions and processes, and

(i) regularly employs two or more journalists in Canada, which journalists may include journalists who own or are a partner in the news business and journalists who do not deal at arm’s length with the business,

(ii) operates in Canada, including having content edited and designed in Canada,

(iii) produces news content that is not primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment, and

(iv) is either a member of a recognized journalistic association and follows the code of ethics of a recognized journalistic association or has its own code of ethics whose standards of professional conduct require adherence to the recognized processes and principles of the journalism profession, including fairness, independence and rigour in reporting news and handling sources; or

(c) operates an Indigenous news outlet in Canada and produces news content that includes matters of general interest, including coverage of matters relating to the rights of Indigenous peoples, including the right of self-government and treaty rights.

Unless there is another section Meta also used, chances are, this is the section they used to determine who is and is not a news source. Through this, we can narrow down specifically how the news sources that didn’t get impacted managed to evade the news links blocking.

Earlier, I published a vlog posting discussing the matters which can be viewed below:

In that, I highlighted three sections that are relevant to Freezenet. Those are Sections 27 (1) (b) (i), 27 (1) (b) (iii), and 27 (1) (b) (iv). Working in reverse order, Freezenet doesn’t follow a hard “code of ethics”. It’s kind of weird that this is a very good thing for my site that publishes news, but this does, legally speaking, work in my favour because that alone means my site is not an eligible news source. Additionally, Freezenet technically ‘focuses on a particular topic’ which is, namely, technology (in the likely eyes of people who audit my site and doesn’t know the subject very well. Finally, I work for myself still which means I don’t employ “two or more journalists in Canada”.

This doesn’t necessarily narrow down what specifically allowed Freezenet to evade the news links blocking, but it does offer a very comforting barrier to preventing this site from getting blocked.

The thing is, with the examples of Arstechnica, Kotaku, and Polygon, it might be easier to narrow this down further as to what possibly allowed Freezenet to avoid getting triggered by the news links blocking. At least one of the above examples probably has at least a second Canadian journalist. This probably rules out (i). What’s more, at least one of the above examples probably follows a so-called “code of ethics”. This rules out (iv). That leaves (iii) which talks about focusing on a particular topic. This is what all three of the above examples and my site have in common. Freezenet and Arstechnica focus on different areas of technology. Kotaku and Polygon focus largely on entertainment like video games.

Some keen observers might note that the overarching section of 27 (1) (b) might come into play. The thing is, this is actually a rather vague part of the bill. Is talking about political policy, even if through the lens of technology enough to be “general interest”? It can read a wide audience because sometimes, I might cover Bill C-11 and Bill C-18. I might also cover privacy related issues, issues affecting other countries, review music and video games, etc. That could technically be classified as “general interest” enough to some. The problem is, this law isn’t that clear on what constitutes “general interest” and what does not in the end. Luckily, it slaps an “and” at the end, so the legislation also requires the sub-sections below that.

So, in all likelihood, the one thing that Freezenet, Arstechnica, Kotaku, and Polygon all have in common in relationship to this law is that all of these sites focus on a particular topic. That means that all of our sites are not eligible under this legislation and Meta deemed fit to leave our sites be (which is a good thing for us!).

Meta can safely do this because, under the eyes of the new law, all four websites aren’t recognized as “news”. This means that Meta, in no way, is going to get in trouble for allowing links to all four websites. Unless the government tables another law or somehow changes the definitions on who is and isn’t eligible, then we get left alone because we are “not news” according to the law.

The next question this leaves is, what will Google do? Honestly, we don’t know. In all likelihood, they will follow Meta’s lead and block news based on eligibility requirements. There’s no certainty that this will be the case, however, what Meta is doing could be treated as a sign of what’s to come on Google. After all, both are massive corporations that have the ability to hire top rated lawyers to interpret these laws. Both are captured in this bill and have to respond to it sooner or later. There’s no signs as of now that Google is backing away from their position that they will block news links as well. So, the overlap of who is and isn’t part of the news links blocks is likely to be very similar.

There are no guarantees in this, but it, at least, a sign of where things are headed with Google. What’s more, all of this does explain why not all news sites are impacted by this even though, on the surface, it does seem like all news is impacted. There are probably other examples and people can speculate what part of the law is likely what the platforms are reading to make this determination. There’s no way of knowing for sure what is going on in this decision making, but we can make a reasonably good guess. An interesting aspect to all of this at the very least.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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