Meta now finds itself in controversy, facing allegations of recklessly endangering lives by hindering the distribution of vital news links in Canada. At this critical juncture, when wildfires are forcing thousands to abandon their homes, Facebook once served as a crucial lifeline for sharing pertinent updates.
“This situation is perilous,” admitted Kelsey Worth, a 35-year-old inhabitant of Yellowknife, amongst close to 20,000 other residents and many more in adjacent areas, who were given evacuation notices as wildfires encroached. Worth revealed the enormous challenges she and other evacuees faced when trying to access reliable news regarding the wildfires raging across the nearly-arctic territory and other regions of Canada.
“Determining what’s true or not has become impossible. Time is critically important in an emergency situation,” she emphasized, noting how Canadians have, until now, been major consumers of social media news.
As of August 1, Meta decided to withhold the dissemination of news links and articles on its Facebook and Instagram platforms. This is a retaliation to a newly instated law which necessitates digital corporations to compensate publishers for news content. Since the bill’s passing in June, which comes into effect only next year, Meta and Ottawa have been in a standoff.
Taking a cue from similar legislation in Australia, the new bill aspires to sustain the faltering Canadian news industry which, over the past decade, has experienced the flight of advertising dollars and closure of numerous publications. Subsequently, it demands that companies like Meta and Google negotiate equitable commercial agreements with Canadian news outlets. The shared news and information content on their platforms- valued around Can$330 million (US$250 million) per annum- is subject to this regulation or compels binding arbitration.
According to Meta, the bill is defective. It asserts that it’s the news outlets who benefit by distributing content on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms to attract audience, not the Silicon Valley company.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau slammed Meta for prioritzing corporate profitability over safety, and undermining Canadians’ access to critical information about calamities like wildfires. It’s noteworthy that around 80% of Canada’s online advertising revenues go to Meta and Google, the latter expressing its own doubts about the new legislation.
Ollie Williams, director of the north’s Cabin Radio, termed Meta’s decision to block news sharing as ‘senseless and hazardous’. He proposed, during an AFP interview, for Meta to temporarily lift the ban to preserve lives, as the financial consequences could be nil considering the new legislation isn’t effective yet.
Nevertheless, some have found means to bypass Meta’s barricade. Nicolas Servel from Radio Taiga revealed the ‘alternative sharing methods’ people are using, such as posting screenshots of news articles from personal social media accounts.
Major players in Canada’s newspaper industry have launched initiatives to directly draw readers to their websites. Yet, for smaller news outlets, discovering alternatives has been problematic as social media platforms are deeply rooted.
The CBC appealed to Meta to revoke this blockade. “Time is of the essence,” expressed CBC president Catherine Tait. “I implore you to adopt the necessary humanitarian measure and immediately lift your ban on critical Canadian news and information concerning this wildfire crisis.”
However, Meta repudiated CBC’s appeal and instead encouraged Canadians to utilize Facebook’s “Safety Check” tool.
Patrick White, a University of Quebec professor, expressed that Meta’s actions have proven it to be a ‘poor corporate citizen’. He remains optimistic though that Ottawa will successfully negotiate a settlement with Meta and other digital players, while addressing their concerns.