Opinion: Canada’s keeping close eye on Australia’s fight with Facebook

Facebook argues its relationship with news organizations is a symbiotic one

Picking a fight on social media is now just another day at the office for political partisans.

Picking a fight with social media, however, is a more perilous exercise, as Australia learned this week when Facebook announced it was ready to pull the plug on all that country’s news content on its platform.

Justin Trudeau’s government is paying close attention, saying in no unclear terms on Tuesday that it is standing with Australia — which may be a little bit like “unfriending” Facebook.

“The Canadian government stands with our Australian partners and denounces any form of threats,” Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in an emailed statement.

Canada is siding with Australia in large part, we can assume, because it’s been hoping to go down a similar road in making the social-media giants pay for the news they reproduce on their platforms.

Facebook’s response to Australia is going to make that a bit more complicated.

Late on Monday, Facebook announced that it would be pulling all Australian news content off its platform if Scott Morrison’s government goes ahead with its legislation to charge social-media companies for the journalism content they distribute on their platforms.

The long-standing argument, made by many newspapers, is that it is unfair for Facebook to reap all the clicks and advertising dollars that should go to the people and businesses who produce the content being shared on social media.

Facebook’s vice-president of global news partnerships, Campbell Brown, explained in a statement that the company isn’t unsympathetic to journalism, but that Australia’s solution is the wrong one.

“Removing news in Australia is not the outcome we’ve been working towards; it is our last choice. We remain committed to helping the long-term sustainability of news businesses, which we don’t believe the proposed legislation would achieve.”

The Australian government is saying it is unbowed by Facebook’s blowback.

“We don’t respond to coercion or heavy-handed threats wherever they come from,” Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told Reuters, arguing that the law was in the national interest, which goes hand in hand with a healthy local media industry.

For a while there, Australia’s bold bid to charge social-media companies for the news they reproduce was looking like the silver bullet to the economic woes of the journalism industry, including those in Canada.

As recently as June, Guilbeault said he was planning to talk to officials in Australia before unveiling plans this fall to give long-term assistance to the news and information industries.

He is also talking to his counterparts in France, where the government has taken a different approach — more like copyright law — to charge tech giants for the news they distribute.

Guilbeault’s office said on Tuesday that the minister is looking for a “made-in-Canada” solution, but offered no hints of what that would look like, or whether the Australia-Facebook spat has sent Canada back to the drawing board.

Facebook, for its part, has been arguing that its relationship with news organizations is more of a symbiotic one. Yes, it gets to circulate news — and more and more Canadians get their news from Facebook — but it also argues that the media gets to tap into a huge distribution network at no cost.

Will Easton, Facebook’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, also issued a blog post, laying out this line of argument, as well as what Australian news companies stand to lose when their content is pulled.

News stories are thrown up on Facebook to “encourage readers to share news across social platforms, to increase readership of their stories,” Easton wrote.

“This in turn allows them to sell more subscriptions and advertising. Over the first five months of 2020, we sent 2.3 billion clicks from Facebook’s newsfeed back to Australian news websites at no charge — additional traffic worth an estimated $200 million (AUD) to Australian publishers.”

Similar figures are not available for Canada, but one assumes they would emerge if Guilbeault’s plans resemble what Australia has been proposing.

Facebook has been arguing that it is not anti-journalism and that it is, in fact, in the midst of all kinds of initiatives to help this ailing industry — fellowships for journalists, for instance, and a “news licensing” program being unveiled in other countries.

That licensing agreement has put not-insignificant dollars in the pockets of U.S. media organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post — according to some reports, an estimated cash infusion of as much as $3 million annually for big media players.

Similar deals for Canadian news organizations are not yet in the works and Guilbeault is still promising that some sort of plan to help the media business is coming before the end of this year.

Arguing with Facebook, though, now looks a little more high-risk than arguing on Facebook.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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