Facebook unveiled a plan Tuesday to pay some Canadian publishers for news stories on its platform, but experts say the move diverts attention from forthcoming regulation efforts.
The California-based tech giant said it will pay 14 publishers, including the National Observer, FP Newspapers, Le Devoir, the Tyee and the publisher of Le Soleil undisclosed amounts to link to their articles on its COVID-19 and climate science pages or in other unspecified use cases.
Deals made under the news innovation test program were also reached with the Coast, the Narwhal, Village Media, the SaltWire Network, the Sprawl, Discourse Media, Narcity, BlogTO and Daily Hive.
Facebook would not disclose the value or structure of the deals, and would not say if other publishers were approached for the project. It says the program will be multi-year in scope and does not include payments for news links already posted on Facebook by publishers.
Industry watchers say the deal brings cash to media companies hurting for advertising, but believe the arrangement should be viewed as Facebook’s way of getting ahead of potential regulation in Canada without tackling much of the criticism it faces over issues such as privacy concerns and the prevalence of misinformation on its platform.
“There are some fundamental problems with Facebook and this glosses over all of that and makes it much, much less likely that Canadian officials will actually consider the possibility of regulating them in ways that will affect these much deeper seated issues,” said Blayne Haggart, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and an associate professor of political science at Brock University.
Those issues, he said, include “pervasive” surveillance practices, data collection strategies, non-co-operation with authorities and a history of hosting misinformation and hateful content.
They have cropped up as Canadian media companies have watched their revenues slip away and put much of the blame on big tech.
A 2018 report from the Canadian Media Concentration Project revealed Google had half the country’s internet advertising market share in 2018, with Facebook trailing at 27.3 per cent and Bell, Torstar, Twitter and Postmedia sitting at under two per cent each.
That equates to $3.8 billion in advertising revenue for Google, up from $2.8 billion in 2016.
Facebook made $2.1 billion in advertising in 2018, while Bell made $146 million, Torstar earned $120 million, Twitter got $117.5 million and Postmedia made $116.4 million.
Meanwhile, the federal government is in the process of considering legislation that could force tech companies to pay for news on their platforms and dole out penalties when problematic content is not removed quickly.
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Other countries are dealing with similar considerations. Australia, for example, unveiled plans earlier this year to make social media companies negotiate payments to publishers there.
Facebook responded by quickly blocking Australian users from posting or seeing links to local or international news websites, only to reverse course days later.
In Canada, Facebook has promised to spend at least $8 million over the next three years on journalism initiatives, including funding reporter fellowships at The Canadian Press and grants for media organizations run by people that are Black, Indigenous or of colour.
Facebook on Tuesday declined an interview to discuss its latest media efforts, but the company’s global director and head of public policy said in a statement that the program supports journalism and will allow the company “to partner even more closely with publishers to help them build sustainable business models.”
“Only through communication and collaboration can we make progress, and we look forward to continuing our work to promote a healthy news industry in Canada,” said Kevin Chan in an email.
Haggart, however, believes the efforts announced continue to embed Facebook in the media ecosystem and build publishers’ dependency on a “single, foreign and capricious platform.”
Facebook said that in January 2021 alone, the platform and Google generated 24 million page views for Village Media for free, which the publisher calculates is worth about $480,000.
“What’s good for Facebook becomes what’s good for Le Devoir, or Village Media or BlogTO or whoever and that’s what creates a challenge and distracts from the fundamental issues,” said Haggart.
Instead of these voluntary deals Facebook offers media, he thinks the company needs to be much more heavily regulated than it is now and authorities should be taking a greater interest in ensuring the news the platform shares is of quality.
Daniel Bernhard, the executive director of media watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, said he would like to see Facebook forced to make fair deals with publishers and if they can’t reach agreeable terms, head to binding arbitration.
That proposal is reminiscent of what’s underway in Australia and stops Facebook from unilaterally deciding how much to pay or offering publishers a “take it or leave it” deal, said Bernhard.
He said the latest Facebook initiative is happening because governments have been slow to regulate technology firms.
“I hope that regulators will be able to see the obvious self-interest in this move, which is clearly an attempt to try to pre-empt regulation and say, ‘Don’t worry, nothing to see here,”’ said Bernhard.
“But I think they’ve actually proved even more strongly … that publishers need to receive a fair price for use of their content from these trillion-dollar American companies.”