The dismantling of Twitter over the past six weeks has been incredibly distressing for millions of users who have come to rely on the platform. From the mass layoffs to journalist suspensions to this weekend’s seemingly short-lived policy blocking some links to rival services, it has been a head-spinning stretch since Elon Musk assumed ownership of the service in late October. In response, many have established a presence on various alternatives: you can now also find me on Mastodon, Post, and Substack. As Twitter users promote these alternatives, on Sunday the company briefly unveiled a new policy that involved removing “accounts created solely for the purpose of promoting other social platforms and content that contains links or usernames for the following platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, Truth Social, Tribel, Nostr and Post.” From an operational perspective, this would have meant blocking some links to rival platforms big (Facebook, IG), growing (Mastodon), and small (Post).
The policy may have been short-lived – last night the company’s tweets on point were removed – but the policy on linking remains particularly notable because it bears a striking resemblance to the Canadian government’s Online News Act, known as Bill C-18. While some responded to a tweet I wrote that the comparison is a stretch, the parallels are obvious. In Twitter’s case, the company took the position that certain links posted by users – namely links to rival services – create unfair competition since Twitter is competing with services such as Instagram for the same user base and the same advertisers. In response, the company said that the links would either be blocked or could remain with compensation (ie. paid advertising).
The policy rightly sparked widespread criticism given the implications for freedom of expression and competition. From an expression perspective, most intuitively understand that links to other services is simply legal expression that is little different than providing an address or contact information. Moreover, the blocked links would have made it more difficult for new services to emerge since they create user lock-in by establishing barriers to move elsewhere.
Twitter may have caved to public pressure on the link policy, yet the approach is grounded in the principles that underlie Bill C-18. The Canadian government similarly believes that certain links posted by users – namely links to news articles posted on Facebook and Google – create unfair competition since the Internet platforms are competing with Canadian news outlets for the same readers and the same advertisers. In response, the government is using Bill C-18 to mandate that links should either be blocked (ie. removed) or can remain on the platforms with compensation (ie. negotiated or arbitrated licence).
Unfortunately, the policy has not sparked as much criticism despite similar implications for freedom of expression and competition. Links to news articles are no different than links to profiles on social media sites: they are both forms of expression for users designed to signal information that others may find useful or of interest. Moreover, as has been widely chronicled, Bill C-18 threatens the competitive position of smaller services, who are more dependent on those links to find audiences and develop a foothold in the market.
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and the Canadian government would likely recoil at the suggestion that their policies on expression bear any resemblance to Elon Musk’s. But the reality is that both undermine freedom of expression safeguards in return for a payoff. The beneficiaries may be different, but the policies are grounded in the same approach based on restricting or requiring payment for links. With Twitter having quickly reconsidered its new policy, the government would do well to do the same by amending Bill C-18 to limit its scope to payments for actual use of news articles, not mere links.