Independent media: The first victims of Meta censorship

The new Online News Act does nothing to benefit small independent media, while their content has been among the first to disappear from the big platforms.
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By Gabrielle Brassard-Lecours, originally published in Pivot, translated here from French

Having already had their content blocked for several weeks, independent media are the first victims of censorship by tech giants like Meta. However, these small players have little to gain, for the moment, from the law designed to force platforms to negotiate royalties with Canadian media.

In response to the new federal law Bill C-18, which aims to force Big Tech to compensate the news media for their content circulating on their platforms, Google and Meta (Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, Threads) announced their intention a few months ago to block Canadian information from users.

Many have already experienced Meta censorship for several weeks, particularly independent media, including Pivot, The Breach and The Resolve. Some users have reported that they can no longer see content on Instagram, for example.

Until recently, Meta had announced that it was running “tests” with certain media by blocking them in this way. However, the American company then announced on August 1 that it would permanently block all Canadian media for all Canadian users. [Note: It now appears that it’s not just Canadian media being blocked, and even American news outlets (CNN, NYT) are being hidden for users in Canada.]

Meta Canada’s head of public policy, Rachel Curran, claimed that the law, as currently presented, is not suitable for the web giant and that it had no intention of reversing its decision to block Canadian content unless the law was amended.

Nevertheless, Meta and Google are said to be negotiating with the government to resolve the conflict. The new minister of Heritage Canada, Pascale St-Onge, who recently took office following the latest federal cabinet shuffle, assured La Presse that Ottawa would not bend to Meta and Google.

“I hope Canada doesn’t back down and stands up to Meta and Google. So far, this is the case, but I do not know where the discussions are at,” says Alain Saulnier, former journalism professor and managing editor at Radio-Canada.

“But for sure, many are observing the showdown between the government and these companies,” he adds.

In fact, California is in the process of imposing their own similar law on Big Tech, “even more severe than here,” according to Saulnier. France and New Zealand could also follow suit in creating a law to require negotiations with GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon).

“I think Meta is feeling the heat and that’s why it’s pushing against C-18. We are at a turning point, here as elsewhere, in terms of negotiations with these companies, which have taken on too much power,” says the former professor.

Independent media absent from Bill C-18

Even before the announcement of Bill C-18, passed by the House of Commons last June and set to take effect next December, independent media publishers have been worried about their absence from the discussion table around the Online News Act.

Based on the Australian model, the law forces Big Tech to negotiate with outlets a form of royalty in exchange for their content shared on the various platforms.

But as of now, only the biggest players have benefitted.

Le Devoir, La Presse, the Toronto Star and other legacy media already had agreements with Google and Meta before the adoption of the law. Most of these agreements were canceled by the two companies after the law passed.

The Australian model that inspired C-18 has also favoured the largest media companies. According to an analysis by Canadian journalist Sue Gardner, 90 per cent of the revenues negotiated with Big Tech in Australia were granted to the three largest media groups in that country. 

Many believe that Bill C-18 must include the smaller media, on an equal basis, and not leave them on their own to negotiate with Big Tech. This is particularly the case for the independent media association Press Forward, which works to encourage strong and independent, accessible, innovative and inclusive information for Canadians. Press Forward has been campaigning for more than a year to have a voice in the development of the law. 

“As new entrants, we do not yet have the name brand recognition of the large legacy news brands in Canada. And we may not have the resources to weather the storm while the platforms and the government engage in power plays,” reads the group’s latest press release.

“In this uncertain time, small publishers that represent the future of independent media in Canada must be given a seat at the table in the coming months as regulations for the Online News Act are formed.”

Getting around GAFA

Gardner and other critics have also pointed out that media cannot rely on social media as a business model. They believe the media should be thinking of other ways to get their content to readers.

But can media outlets in 2023 really survive without social networks to distribute our content and reach different audiences, especially young independent media outlets? “Of course, it’s a real issue, but it’s also an opportunity, in my opinion, to think about other ways to make yourself known. Why do we let American and Chinese companies [TikTok] decide what is good or bad content?,” reflects Saulnier.

He evokes the idea of creating a national network to meet our own information needs. “We would have all the resources here to set up a social network in our image, with experts in programming, artificial intelligence, etc.,” says Saulnier. He recalls the example of Radio-Canada, created in the 1930s in response to the growing influence of American radio.

“Meta was considered revolutionary, but it might be overrated, and it is maybe time to find an alternative. When you go to war, you must have a plan for after.”

In the meantime, media outlets are using their creativity to encourage their readership to get information directly from their websites and to subscribe to their newsletters to bypass social networks. But the impact of the shutdown is already being felt — especially in independent media in lost readers, and ultimately, lost revenue.

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