Some Hiccups Are Appearing in Facebook’s News Link Blocking

While a lot of news sites got hit with the news link blocking on Facebook, some sites are seemingly erroneously getting captured.

Meta announced at the top of the month that, as warned, they would be rolling out news links blocking to comply with the passage of Bill C-18. The blocking is happening in waves because, as you can imagine, finding and blocking access to news links in Canada is no small task. Not only are they blocking Canadian news sites, but also non-Canadian sources for Canadian users.

So, the task was quite large. While it is only a minor part of Facebook, it is still a considerable task to figure out what is and isn’t a news source. Sometimes, it isn’t quite as clear as to who is and isn’t a news source. The eligibility requirements, though somewhat clear for a single news site, isn’t exactly something that scales all that well. Sure, you could look at a Facebook page and determine fairly quickly whether or not it complies or not, but imagine doing that for thousands of pages relatively quickly. Sooner or later, there will be some hiccups along the way.

As a result, it probably isn’t a surprise that hiccups in the rollout have been occurring. Earlier, there were reports that satirical news site, the Beaverton, got blocked. From CBCNews:

Luke Gordon Field is trying to figure out how he can explain the concept of deadpan satire to an algorithm.

He says he never thought in a million years that the need to explain a joke would transcend humans. But it’s a situation he believes he has found himself in as editor in chief of the Beaverton, a Canadian comedy website.

But satirical sites are getting caught up in the tech giant’s quest, too — even though their human audiences know they aren’t news.

It’s an error that some publications say could threaten their survival.

“I don’t want to be too dramatic, but in a world where Facebook completely cuts us off, I mean, there’s a very real chance we do not survive that,” Field told the Canadian Press.

He said he started the Beaverton over a decade ago with a group of comedy writers who just wanted to put their funny jokes online for people to see.

They don’t have major financial backing or wealthy owners, and they have relied heavily on Facebook to promote their content and grow their audience, he said.

More recently, a radio station that reportedly doesn’t offer news also got swept up into this. From Chek News:

A small online radio station on Salt Spring Island is the latest collateral damage of the standoff between Meta and the Canadian government over Bill C-18.

The bill forces tech giants to compensate Canadian news agencies for their content, but Damian Inwood says that ban shouldn’t apply to his small operation.

“I never thought that we would become a target for that,” says Inwood, president of the Gulf Islands Radio Society.

Meta’s ban makes the Facebook pages of news agencies inaccessible to Canadians, but Inwood’s situation is unique. CHIR Radio produces no news.

“We don’t have a news reporter,” says Inwood.

The station exists strictly online. Inwood says he’s close to the $50,000 needed to purchase the equipment required to broadcast an FM signal to the Gulf Islands, and the Facebook page plays an integral part in the society’s fundraising. “We sell CDs and vinyl records, all donated,” he says.

A third site that seemingly got hit was the City of Westmount which is saying that they got caught up in this:

As of August 10, 2023, the City of Westmount’s Facebook posts containing a hyperlink to the City’s website can no longer be viewed in Canada.

It seems this is due to measures taken by Meta (Facebook’s parent company) in response to the federal government’s Bill C-18. Also known as the Online News Act, it aims to ensure ”fair revenue sharing between digital platforms and news outlets”, according to the Government of Canada. As this bill is not meant to implicate municipal organizations, we are in discussion with Meta to hopefully resolve this situation and regain visibility of our linked content for Canadian internet users.

Presently, the City will continue to publish content on Facebook without including a direct link to the website.

A city website, to our knowledge, shouldn’t be getting hit. In fact, Meta themselves noted that notices and information posted by government, officials, and politician’s should still be available. Judging by the quick survey of the site, that probably shouldn’t be included in Facebooks news link blocking, but apparently it is.

We’ve been monitoring for false positives for some time now. Indeed, there is a high degree of motivation for the large news sites to try and find these cases because it does make Meta look bad in all of this. Since they don’t really have many other options, that is probably the only thing they can do on the way down to Facebook oblivion. The fact that such huge swaths of pages got hit, it’s actually kind of impressive that these are the only three likely false positives we were able to find.

After all, mixed in with this were also news sites urging users to follow them in other ways. For instance, CP24 (which is basically the Canadian Press) posted the standard begging message recently:

Canadians who follow CP24 on Facebook and Instagram may have noticed they’ve been blocked from viewing the latest news after the passing of Bill C-18. But you can continue to access our award-winning and trusted content by visiting our digital platforms directly, as well as downloading the CP24 app, signing up for alerts on news that matters to you, and more.

CP24 remains your No. 1 source for Toronto’s breaking news, as well as the latest headlines, videos and insights on Canadian and international news. To stay informed on the stories that matter most to you, here’s how you can connect with CP24 online

Another site, BarrieToday, also published an article talking about their experience with all of this and, at the very least, it was actually quite a reasonable perspective:

Here is the view of Village Media chief executive officer Jeff Elgie, who has said it will “devastate the industry.”

“In effect, this would mean that our Facebook and Instagram accounts would go dark — and readers would not be able to post or share our content on those social channels. Google would no longer carry links to our sites or articles,” he has said.

We are already seeing some of that happen, particularly on Facebook.

“Village Media’s position is that it’s been a bad bill from the start,” Elgie said. “The premise of the bill was that Google/Facebook ‘steal’ our content when nothing could be further from the truth. As you know, we go out of our way to make sure our content is very search-friendly and we happily put our content on Facebook — because we get massive value back from those traffic sources.

“As a company ‘born digital’ we have learned to work with them as friends and partners. Any possible attempts to explain this have fallen on deaf ears with our government — from the House to the Senate and particularly with our heritage minister.”

If I read that correctly, it sounds like the federal government picked an unnecessary fight.

From my perspective as a local columnist with BarrieToday, which is owned by Village Media, I shared my articles to as many places as I could to link it back to my publishing company. It was a win-win.

This is a point that often gets lost in these debates. Not every news outlet out there supports this – not by a long shot. Yet, the news links blocking is affecting everyone. It doesn’t matter if a news site has one political leaning or another, was adamantly for or against Bill C-18, it’s all getting blocked regardless. This despite the insistence of some to try and politicize everything about this. At the end of the day, it was a bad law that got rammed through the political process and the forewarned consequences are, well, happening. It was all predictable, but the government instead chose to play political games (even to this day) instead of actually give the issue the care and attention it needed.

It’s unclear where everything will land once the dust settles by the end of the month. The rollouts appear to be continuing to happen and more minor adjustments will probably happen in the days ahead. We are half way through the month at this stage (well, close enough to the half way mark anyway), so a lot can still change between now and then. What’s more, changes can very easily happen after the end of the month. It wouldn’t be surprising if Facebook winds up tweaking things from time to time in the months ahead. Still, it was hard to expect perfection on a project so large. If anything, to the surprise of no one, Facebook isn’t achieving perfection here and small changes will need to be made to better determine who is and who isn’t a news publisher.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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