September 28, 2023

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Canada asks Meta to unblock the news as the Yellowknife fires burn

Thousands of Canadians also fled wildfires raging in the Northwest Territories on Friday, the country senior leaders Meta has called for an end to the ban preventing users in Canada from sharing news articles on its social networks.

Meta began blocking news links for Facebook and Instagram users in Canada in June after the country passed a law allowing news organizations to negotiate with tech giants to receive payment for articles shared on their platforms. The ban by Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, has angered Canadian authorities for trying to share eviction information this week across a remote part of the country where social media is key to spreading the word.

“What Mita is currently doing is unacceptable,” Pablo Rodriguez, Canada’s transportation minister, said at a press briefing on Friday. We’ve seen that during this emergency, Canadians haven’t been able to access the critical information they need. Therefore, I ask Meta to reverse its decision and allow Canadians access to the news on their platform.”

Evacuation orders expanded in western Canada on Friday as fires spread across the region, and officials declared a state of emergency in Kelowna, a city of 150,000 people 170 miles east of Vancouver. Officials had previously urged all 20,000 residents of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territory, to leave the city by Friday noon local time as the winds intensified. Some went by plane, some by car.

Meta’s ban on sharing news is the latest development in its years-long battle to oppose regulatory proposals around the world that seek to bolster a weakened media industry by forcing social media companies to pay for content. Supporters of regulation have argued that social media platforms are the main beneficiaries of digital advertising earned from news articles, and should share some of that revenue with publishers.

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But Meta says the share of revenue derived from news content is overstated and argues that media outlets benefit from subscriptions and increased readership because their stories are published on their platforms.

Officials in Canada say the impact of the news ban was evident during the wildfire crisis.

“Meta’s reckless choice to withhold news before the law takes effect harms access to vital information on Facebook and Instagram,” Pascale St-Onge, Canadian Heritage Minister, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We are calling on them to re-share the news today for the safety of Canadians facing this emergency. We need more news now, not less.”

FB page The City of Yellowknife Channel on Thursday urged residents to Google the website owned by CPAC, a Canadian broadcast channel, for wildfire updates. “Due to a recent change in legislation, the city is unable to share the link because it is an informational resource,” the municipality wrote.

National public radio is one of the few ways residents of affected areas can know what’s going on other than government news releases or emergency warnings, said Catherine Tait, president and CEO of CBC and Radio Canada.

CBC Northwest Territories has 41,000 followers on its Facebook page, while the population of the territory is about 46,000. Because of the remoteness of the area, it is sometimes difficult for the news organization to reach people there. Facebook helped her do that, playing a “disproportionate role in sharing our information,” Tait said he told the newspaper.

“It’s like taking your phone away from you, or taking your radio away from you,” Tait said of the ban. The CEO noted that her organization delivers news in Indigenous languages, and that social networks are essential to reach younger populations.

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Tate said she is asking Meta to, at the very least, rescind the ban until the wildfire threat has receded.

On Friday, META spokesperson Andy Stone said in a statement that “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 NGOs.”

News/Media Alliance chair Danielle Coffey, whose group has advocated for proposals similar to Canada’s new law, said Meta should lift the ban in light of the crisis.

“When the pandemic hit, our newspapers unblocked the paywall because we thought it was our public duty,” she said, adding that Meta, by contrast, “surgically withholds important news and information because of a business decision.”

Meta has previously threatened to pull the news from its platforms in protest of similar proposals in Australia and California. The Australian law is credited with directing millions to news outlets from Meta and Google. Washington lawmakers have also considered passing a temporary cut in antitrust law to allow publishers to band together to negotiate with the tech giants over the distribution of their content. Neither the California proposal nor the congressional antitrust bill has yet to pass.

“They’ve decided that news is no longer a priority” for their platforms, Tait said of Meta’s actions in Canada. “Well guess what? It’s a priority for users.”