Heritage Minister says Meta news block endangers lives as Canadians flee wildfires
The Canadian PressNews emergency management facebook meta
By Sarah Smellie
Canada’s Heritage Minister redoubled her calls for Meta to end its ban on Canadian news content on Facebook and Instagram on Saturday as thousands of Canadians continued their rush to escape wildfires ravaging British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.
In both a Friday social media post and a Saturday interview with The Canadian Press, Pascale St-Onge said the social media giant is recklessly putting people’s lives at risk by blocking Canadian news articles on its two massive platforms.
“Facebook, Meta has decided to put their own interests above public safety,” she said Saturday. “As a company, they should be acting as good corporate citizens and reverse their ban so that we can make sure that people have access to the information that they need.”
Meta blocked Canadian news on its social media sites earlier this month in response to federal legislation — Bill C-18 — which requires some tech giants to pay for news content shared or repurposed on their platforms. Meta is Facebook’s parent company and formerly bore the same name as the social media platform.
Meanwhile, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories have declared states of emergency as raging forest fires encroach on cities including West Kelowna, B.C., and the territorial capital of Yellowknife. As tens of thousands of people flee under evacuation orders, they won’t find content from Canadian news outlets on Facebook or Instagram to help them stay abreast of the latest information from officials. Facebook pages belonging to outlets including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Cabin Radio, a news site and station in Yellowknife, are empty. A pop-up notification prevents posts from anyone trying to share stories from these organizations.
Bill C-18 is not yet in effect, though it was passed in the House of Commons, St-Onge said. That means Meta is not yet on the hook to pay for any Canadian news posted to its sites. The company, alongside other tech giants, media companies and members of the public, will be invited to weigh in on any regulations resulting from the bill, she added. That consultation period will begin in the coming days.
“Facebook has decided to abandon news even before the bill is fully in effect instead of participating in the consultation process and helping us make sure that the regulation is right, and that it’s good,” St-Onge said. “That’s a choice and a decision that they made. And now we’re seeing that it is putting people’s lives at risk.”
But Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, says there is some onus on the Canadian government to back down.
“To look for the reckless roots of this problem, the heritage minister should look in the mirror,” he said in an interview Saturday, describing the bill itself as “reckless.”
“Time and time again, the government has been warned of just this problem — that the citizens of Canada can be deprived of sources of news.”
Jarvis said Ottawa should be signaling to Meta that it’s open for negotiation. In response, and in light of the horrific wildfires, Meta should then reconsider its Canadian news ban as a show of good faith, he said.
“I would hope that both sides of this might wise up,” said Jarvis, who is also the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.
St-Onge said the federal government is wide open for input from Meta and hopes the company will participate in the consultation period for the bill’s regulations. She has heard nothing from the company so far, she said, nor has it said it would take part in the consultations.
A spokesperson for Meta argued Canadians could still access timely information, citing its Safety Check feature which allows users to let their Facebook friends know they are safe. They can also “request support, check on loved ones and access updates from reputable sources,” read the unsigned email sent on Saturday.
“People in Canada can continue to use our technologies to connect with their communities and access reputable information, including content from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organizations,” the email said.
It did not say if Meta had any intention to end the ban and let users post news stories from Canadian outlets.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2023.
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