Meta starts blocking the news in Canada — its latest standoff with publishers

Canadians using Facebook and Instagram should expect to see some gaps in their feeds, starting now.

This week, Meta began blocking Canadian access to links and stories from news publishers — the company’s response to a bill that would require the tech giant to pay outlets for the right to distribute and profit from their content.

“As we’ve always said, the law is based on a fundamentally flawed premise,” Meta policy communications director Andy Stone wrote on Twitter. “And, regrettably, the only way we can reasonably comply is to end news availability in Canada.”

In June, Canadian Parliament passed the Online News Act, a law that forces tech platforms to negotiate with publishers in order to establish “fair revenue sharing” over their content. When those agreements don’t come willingly, the law — like its Australian counterpart — allows for mandatory arbitration as a “last resort” — an outcome that isn’t likely to look kindly on the tech half of things.

On Tuesday, Meta announced that it has “begun the process of ending news availability in Canada.” All Facebook and Instagram users in Canada will eventually see the limits on news as the new policy rolls out in the coming weeks. The changes will apply to publishers themselves but also to users who share news and links.

Google plans to follow suit with its own news blackout in search results over the law.

With the legislation, Canadian lawmakers set out to bolster a news industry in decline, as shifts in advertising trends have lopsidedly rewarded online platforms at the expense of the competition. For more than a decade, tech platforms have reaped the benefits of publishers’ original content without having to pay for it, even as the news industry plunges into a disheartening death spiral that leaves it endangered.

Tech companies, content to reap their rewards as the middlemen, have expressed little sympathy for the dying industry. After various experiments and gestures toward funding the news — a fairly transparent effort to stave off global legislation like the new Canadian law — Meta has more recently withdrawn from the conversation altogether. (Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism tallied up what we know about where Meta’s previous financial contributions to the news industry have gone, as the company does not maintain a public register of that information.)

The era of Meta giving lip service to publishers may be at an end, with the company taking a very adversarial stance in Canada and supposedly backing away from news content in its Twitter clone, Threads. That situation follows a similar standoff in Australia in 2021, when Meta shut off news content in the country to protest the News Media Bargaining Code, which similarly forces tech platforms into compensation talks with publishers. Now two years in, Australia’s own standoff with companies like Meta and Google appears to have been a shot in the arm for local journalism, with $140 million in additional funding circulating each year.

In Meta’s pivot, the company has resorted to disingenuously claiming that it doesn’t benefit from publishers’ content — a laughable statement considering the extent to which news and political content has driven engagement on Facebook.

“We believe that news has a real social value. The problem is that it doesn’t have much of an economic value to Meta,” Rachel Curran, head of public policy for Meta Canada, claimed earlier this year.

Critics of these laws make plenty of reasonable points. For one, the news industry is already overly reliant on social networks to drive traffic and spread stories, a dependence that these pieces of legislation would only worsen. The future of sustainable news likely depends on new solutions altogether — not deepening existing ties to mercurial tech giants. Other critics have pointed out how these forced negotiation frameworks may disproportionately advantage existing large media groups to the detriment of small and independent publishers.

The laws are controversial — and may result in some awkward experiences for social media users — but ultimately the current arrangement disproportionately benefits tech companies, which happen to also be the ones crowing about being wronged this time. Like with the Australian legislation, how things play out in Canada will be a bellwether for future laws obligating social platforms to pay for their content, including one proposal on the table in California that’s on hold until 2024.

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