Google has been in the spotlight for the past few weeks with reports that it has been testing removal news links from search results. The move sparked outrage from MPs, who grilled executives earlier today at Canadian Heritage committee. But now it appears Google has company: the Globe and Mail reports that Facebook has confirmed that it will remove news sharing from its platforms if Bill C-18 passes in its current form. The decision, which would affect Meta platforms Facebook and Instagram, should not come as a surprise since it warned that it was considering the possibility last fall. In fact, the case for Facebook blocking news sharing is even stronger than Google given that news constitutes only three percent of news feeds on the platform and the experience in Australia was that its removal had little impact on user engagement.
The concern facing both Google and Facebook is very clear. Bill C-18 establishes a system of mandated payments for links. While the government often characterizes its approach as requiring compensation for using news, the reality of the bill is that it requires payment for linking, indexing or any other activity that is seen as “facilitating access to news.” Further, with the government indicating that it anticipates payments that could be as high as 35% of news expenditures for every news outlet in the country, the uncapped liability for these company for simply linking to news would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
In fact, the question of links on Facebook was raised directly during the clause-by-clause review of Bill C-18:
Mrs. Rachel Thomas: I’m going to try my hand at a tangible example here. As Canadians right now we have the incredible ability to exchange ideas within public platforms or online platforms such as Facebook. It’s this new form of a public square where ideas are exchanged and sometimes quotes are taken and expressed and entire news articles are sometimes posted. I recognize that if Facebook continues to allow articles to be posted, they will be declared a DNI and they will need to enter into negotiations. Facebook has said that they may consider removing the ability of news to be shared on their platform so that they cannot be scoped into this legislation. If they were to make that decision and Canadians wanted to take a quote from a newspaper article and post that quote on their Facebook page as a small snippet, would Facebook be allowed to permit that without being captured by this legislation?
Mr. Thomas Owen Ripley: Thank you for the question, MP Thomas. The concepts of “making available” or ”facilitating access to” are really intended, again, to…. The primary driver behind this bill, if we could go back to first principles, is recognizing that Canadians use these services in order to access news content. Primarily, it’s that idea of facilitating access to it. We’ve heard the debate around whether linking should be included or not, but the government’s position is that you need to include it because, at its core, that is what it means to facilitate access to news content in the modern digital environment. Regarding the example you give, in a context where Facebook has made the business decision to essentially prevent the ability of users to link to news articles but an individual is quoting from a particular news article without a link, no, I do not believe that would engage or trigger the application of the act.
Mrs. Rachel Thomas: But as soon as a link is included, then they would be scoped into this legislation.
Mr. Thomas Owen Ripley: From my perspective, the act of linking is a critical one. It boils down to the facilitation of access. Again, at the crux of this bill is a recognition that the ways that a significant number of Canadians navigate to news content is via social media services or via a search service, which involves clicking on the link. Yes.
This where the government is at with Bill C-18. A Canadian can post a quote from a news article on their Facebook page, but if they include a link to the source article, there would be a requirement for the platform to negotiate mandatory payment for linking. pic.twitter.com/8dt618rHaQ
— Michael Geist (@mgeist) November 29, 2022
The exchange removes any doubt that the bill would implicate Facebook posts merely for including a link that sends users to the original source. To paraphrase Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, “links in, liability in.” Given the inclusion of hundreds of broadcasters that are not even required to produce news, it should not come as a surprise that the two companies around which the entire legislation is framed would consider stopping news linking or sharing. Indeed, the government has acknowledged that there are two ways to comply with Bill C-18: either pay for links or stop linking. Given that choice, both companies appear to be moving toward exiting news in Canada.
Rodriguez tried to downplay that possibility when he appeared before committee describing it as a business choice, but the reality is he chose the riskiest possible legislative approach. There were many alternatives, including an independent fund or legislation based on reproduction of news articles. Instead, Rodriguez and the government practically dared the companies to do anything other than pay up for linking, while taking aim that the foundation of the free flow of information online. It is that choice – the government’s policy choice in Bill C-18 – that may ultimately lead to a digital news desert of Canadian sources on two of the most important Internet platforms.