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EXCLUSIVE: Meta and Alphabet will pull back from news distribution in more countries if forced to pay for content, the CEO of leading Canadian public network CBC/Radio Canada has predicted.
Catherine Tait told Deadline she “absolutely believes” globally-focused social media giants are prepared to stop linking to news content from organizations around the world, despite the “general growth of disinformation” on the internet.
The news comes as California seeks to introduce legislation that would require platforms to pay news outlets monthly usage fees, and as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which will provide protections to newspapers, broadcast stations and digital journalism outlets and give them more market power in the face of competition for advertising from the digital giants.
It also follows Meta and Alphabet choosing to stop hosting news sites in Canada and Meta’s announcement earlier this month that in December it would ‘deprecate’ Facebook News in the UK, Germany and France.
Facebook is focusing more on short-form video and away from news and political content, which it claims users no longer want as often.
In Canada, the government and news providers are currently at odds with the social media giants after the country’s new Online News Act — also known as Bill C-18 — ordered the Facebook and Instagram owner and others to compensate news orgs when their content is shared. Draft regulations show this would cost both companies around 4% of their Canadian revenues. In response to the law, Meta made the call to block news on its platforms and Alphabet is considering the same.
Meta claims the law “misrepresents the value news outlets receive when choosing to use our platforms” and is based on “on the incorrect premise that Meta benefits unfairly from news content shared on our platforms, when the reverse is true.”
Google has said it feared that the law would “make it harder for Canadians to find news online, make it harder for journalists to reach their audiences, and reduce valuable free web traffic to Canadian publishers.”
Tait said Canada had now become “the canary in the coal mine” for the future relations between public news organizations and social media platforms. “Canada was among first to adopt cable, the internet and Netflix outside of the U.S. As a result, we’ve become a precautionary tale for potential negative outcomes or, at a minimum, the strains of being at the leading edge of technology.
“The business model of these companies is global, so for us to be thinking of us as individual nation states, separate with our own regimes, is a bit absurd. They operate on a global scale and so therefore will be looking at any sort of regulatory imposition as a precedent in other jurisdictions. It’s logical.”
The debate on the role that social media — and Facebook and Instagram, in particular — plays in local news ecosystems has been rumbling on for years now. As far back as 2018, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said paying publishers was not part of his plans, though the company has ceded ground on occasion since.
For example, the Facebook News feature sees Meta pay some news outlets for the content. In Europe, it is being wound down, but users will still be able to access news through links and existing contracts will be honored until they expire in the UK, France and Germany.
“However, to ensure that we continue to invest in those products and services that drive user engagement, we will not enter into new commercial deals for news content on Facebook News in these countries and do not expect to offer new Facebook products specifically for news publishers in the future,” the company said in a blog post unveiling the move just over two weeks ago.
Another situation came to a head in Australia two years ago, with Facebook blocking news content after being ordered to shell out cash. The standoff ended quickly with the major social media platforms agreeing a deal with the Australian government to create the News Media Bargaining Code, which sees news providers paid for their online content.
Meanwhile, in California, a bill resembling C-18 has cleared preliminary hurdles in the state and could soon become law, as we reported in August in our story on the Canadian situation. Canada’s plight has reinvigorated a longstanding debate in the U.S. about how news organizations can respond as tech companies continue to draw vast numbers of readers and advertisers.
Exacerbating the situation in Canada is the wildfires that have ravaged Canada’s Northwestern Territories and British Columbia in recent months. Facebook’s news block began in August as the fires spread, becoming the largest in North American history. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those to criticize the move.
The CBC says locals used Facebook Groups to stay in touch during the worst of the fires, and its reporters interviewed evacuees angry they could not share important news reports on the platform.
With more than 450 Canadian news outlets estimated to have closed in the past 15 years, in large part due to the rise of the internet and social media, many remote, small-sized communities such as Yellowknife and Kelowna do not have vast arrays of options for information. Instead, they rely more than ever on mainstream sources — or less reputable ones.
Meta statistics show 70,000 Canadians used its Safety Check tool and more than 1.5 million visited its Yellowknife and Kelowna crisis response pages to access information and check on loved ones. The company also provided Red Cross Canada with resources to “amplify” evacuation resource messaging.
CBC/Radio Canada claims Facebook should have “put aside political and business concerns with the legislation” and kept linking “as a humanitarian act” during the fires. Along with News Media Canada and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, the public network has lodged an anti-competition complaint against Facebook with regulators.
“We know sharing on Facebook is the habit that has been formed and we were therefore very concerned that people were not getting the very important news about evacuation, movement of the fires or health and safety concerns. Unfortunately, our appeal landed on deaf ears,” Tait told Deadline. “It’s a great worry to us that a service that has such as outsized, dominant role in another sovereign state can exercise that kind of control.”
During the fires, Meta Head of Partnerships for Canada Marc Dinsdale wrote to the CBC to say Meta shares Tait’s “deep concern for the wellbeing of Canadians in communities impacted by wildfires across the country and ha[s] been taking steps to ensure people in impacted communities can access authoritative information from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organizations through our platforms.”
Facebook declined to comment directly on this article.
The Online News Act law was brought in as a response to Meta and Alphabet’s domination of the digital ad market. In Canada, the pair account for around 80% of digital ad revenues, according to the Canadian government.
Meta believes the law is based on an incorrect premise that social media companies benefit unfairly from news content shared on Facebook and Instagram, and that Canadian companies actually benefit financially.
Meta also claims news is no longer a substantial part of users’ feeds, with less than 3% of what’s posted being news links, and says that habits are changing. The social media giant has data showing the proportion of adults using Facebook for news fell by about a third between 2016-2022 from 45% to 30%, and that 20% of Canadians believe there is “too much” news on the platform.
CBC/Radio Canada chief Tait said the Online News Act requires a “modest” redistribution of revenues that would be reinvested in journalism, but Meta sees the only way to comply is to back out of the system altogether. The digital giant has noted news is still accessible through websites of news outlets, downloading mobile news apps and subscribing to publishers.
Tait was reappointed CBC/Radio Canada CEO in June for an additional 18-month term, since when she has mainly focused on highlighting issues around disinformation and fake news. She joined in 2018, becoming the first woman to lead the organization.
Tait was in Prague, Czechia this week at the Public Broadcasters International conference, which brought together the likes of the CBC, BBC and France Televisions and members of the European Commission and European Broadcasting Union.
She said a main area of discussion at the confab is how globally-minded digital companies had “really revolutionized our industries for a lot of good reasons” and added: “No one is saying to get Facebook or Google out of Canada — Canadians love and appreciate these services.”
Tait said Canadian broadcasters and services were required to pay taxes and services and invest in Canadian content, meaning companies as powerful as Alphabet and Meta would simply be paying into a existing system. “We all have requirements regarding local news so that there is a provision in a country of only 40 million to support our own domestic industry,” she said. “We would ask Facebook to be held responsible in the way we treat our own companies.”