OTTAWA — The head of Facebook Canada says it will try to avoid a repeat of the news blackout it imposed in Australia, so long as impending legislation doesn't force it to dim the lights of democracy.
"It is never something we would ever want to do unless we really have no choice," Kevin Chan told a parliamentary committee hearing Monday.
Facebook blocked all news on its platform in Australia for five days last month in response to proposed legislation that would require digital giants to pay legacy media outlets for linking to their work.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Australian counterpart agreed to continue "co-ordinating efforts" to ensure Big Tech revenues are shared more fairly with creators and media after Facebook struck a deal with the Australian government on a revised bill, which still demands tech titans fork over cash for linked content.
The standoff Down Under shone a spotlight on Facebook's massive clout – despite the public relations disaster that ensued – as well as broader questions around shifting media business models and modes of information consumption.
Ottawa is working on a three-pronged response to the challenges that social media platforms and other online content providers pose to how media in Canada has been financed, regulated and policed in the past.
Part of that solution is a bill currently before the House of Commons to modernize the broadcasting regime in a way that could force internet steaming sites like Netflix and Spotify to make Canadian content more discoverable and to cough up financial contributions to bolster Canadian creators and producers.
Online hate is a focus of the second prong, as global observers continue to question Facebook's role in tragedies ranging from the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand to deadly military violence directed at Myanmar's Rohingya minority, along with racist posts in Canada.
The third prong seeks to address how major internet companies are taxed – with Australia providing a possible model – and in turn how traditional media companies are financially supported.
Facebook already props up struggling legacy news firms by directing traffic to their sites, Chan said, arguing that cumbersome regulation would hinder a free and open internet.
He pointed to Ontario-based Village Media, whose CEO estimates that Facebook and Google generated 24 million page views for the online community news company in January, amounting to $480,000 in ad revenue. Facebook Canada has also announced investments of $18 million in sustainable media models over six years.
Even if Facebook did choose to choke off news access, the platform doesn't currently function as an essential source of information for most Canadians, Chan said. He cited a Ryerson Leadership Lab study showing that about one-quarter of the population gets its news from Facebook, below several other sources including television, which topped the list, but above newspapers and magazines.
"It’s not the case that Facebook is somehow synonymous to the internet or somehow synonymous with access to news," he said.
Critics argue that paying publishers for links that they or their readers choose to post on social media – effectively a form of promotion – is backwards; if anything, news outlets should pay Facebook for the privilege of putting up de facto ads on its platform.
In a statement to The Canadian Press, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said the government is consulting with France and Australia over the "market imbalance between news media organizations and those who benefit from their work."
"News is not free and has never been. Our position is clear: publishers must be adequately compensated for their work and we will support them as they deliver essential information for the benefit of our democracy and the health and well-being of our communities," he said.
In Australia, Facebook secured concessions in an agreement with the government that allows more room for private deals between Facebook and media firms – such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp – and an extra round of negotiation with publishers before binding arbitration kicks in.
But settling that dust-up did little to pacify concerns over the might and motivations of Big Tech.
“People are increasingly concerned about the power of the web giants and the ravages of the spread of online hate speech, the impact of unfair competition of these giants on local media, and the total lack of justice when people work hard to pay their fair share and multinational web companies do everything to circumvent the rules," said New Democrat MP Heather McPherson.
She accused the Liberal government of fostering a "cosy relationship" with digital giants that protects platforms' profits at the expense of local media and Canadian taxpayers.
The government hopes to table legislation on fair remuneration this year, Guilbeault said.
It also aims to put forward within weeks a bill on online hate speech that would establish a regulator responsible for enforcing an updated definition of hate and ensuring illegal content comes down within 24 hours, subject to strict penalties — which Chan says Facebook would support.
"If we aren’t seen to be in good faith building the right systems to enforce against our standards, then absolutely we should be subject to some kind of penalty and held to account," he said.
Lawmakers also raised concerns Monday about disinformation around COVID-19 vaccines as Canadians rely increasingly on digital communications to stay informed amid a pandemic, an issue that Chan says the company is trying to address while respecting freedom of expression.
“The challenge is, we do need to strike a balance between people’s ability to speak their minds and share their own feelings and ideas ... and also prevent harmful misinformation about the vaccine from being spread," Chan said.
Facebook has 35,000 moderators screening content around the world, including for misinformation and hate speech, he said.
Current Criminal Code provisions barring hate speech can seem increasingly feeble against the daily tide of content that washes up online.
“Bigoted speech is always out there," said University of Windsor law professor Richard Moon in an interview. "But the rise of social media as the principal platforms for personal and public engagement has helped hateful views of different kinds move more into the mainstream."
Moon pointed to algorithms on sites such as YouTube, owned by Google, that can wind up fanning inflammatory posts.
"In order to try to maintain the attention of the viewer, they make suggestions of videos that are more and more extreme because people are often more and more engaged and it holds their attention," he said.
Mohammed Hashim, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, says one reason hate has been so tough to rein in online is a lack of government "guidance."
“The harm that it’s creating not only to victims who face it but to our sense of common decency as Canadians is eroding our faith in democracy," he said in an interview.
"And all of it is happening because of how social media platforms have allowed fringe voices to take over.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2021.
Facebook funds a fellowship that supports journalism positions at The Canadian Press.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press