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Facebook could block news in Canada like it did in Australia

Canada's government wants to make Facebook and Google pay publishers for news. Facebook isn't ruling out blocking news content from its platform.

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In the middle of February, as the Australian government was passing a bill that would force Google and Facebook to pay publishers for news that surfaces on their platforms, Australia's 16 million users found that news content had vanished from Facebook's website and app. Now, with Canada's government mulling similar legislation, it's possible the story could repeat itself across the Pacific.

Sitting before a parliamentary committee on Monday, Facebook Canada's head of policy, Kevin Chan, said that any law that forces Facebook to pay publishers each time their news content is shared on its platform "fundamentally breaks the premise of how a free and open internet works," reports local media

When grilled about whether he thinks it's a fair negotiating tactic for Facebook to pull news like it did in Australia, Chan neither endorsed nor ruled out such a move in Canada: "It is never going to be something that we would ever want to do, unless we really have no choice," he said.

Facebook and Google's fear that Australia could start a precedent appears to be on the cusp of being realized. Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who oversees media and communications in Canada, pledged in February to bring a bill similar to the one proposed by the Australian government to his country's parliament. Guilbeault insists that bill is coming soon, according to the National Post. Justin Trudeau, Canada's Prime Minister, in February promised "co-ordinating efforts" with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on pressuring big tech companies to pay for the content on their platforms.

It follows a tumultuous few months in Australia. While the Australian government was deliberating and then legislating the News Media Bargaining Code bill, Google threatened to pull search out of the country altogether. Later, Facebook abruptly hit the red button on news, with stories, branded Pages and links to news sites completely vanishing from the Australian platform. It was a clumsy move, with Facebook's algorithm pulling pages of charities and government agencies it mistook to be news brands.  

"Facebook's first challenge in Canada will be how it implements the threat if it decides to go through with it," said Rob Nicholls, associate professor of regulation and governance at the University of New South Wales' business school. "In Australia, Facebook's 'mistake' demonstrated that the algorithms... could not tell the difference between Rupert Murdoch and a cancer charity." 

"Threat to exits are a reasonable part of foreign investment. However, they need to be used wisely and sparingly."  

To bring Facebook back to the negotiating table, and news back to Australian feeds, the Australian government modified its bill in a way that allows Facebook to pull news from its platform at any time, and which could exempt both Google and Facebook from being targeted by the law if they make "a significant contribution" to local journalism via voluntary deals. Diana Bossio, a senior lecturer at Swinburne University and researcher of journalism and social media, says Canada should avoid this path.

"Hopefully the Canadian government learn from Australia's example to ensure they don't end up watering down the legislation when Facebook decides to play hard ball," she said.

If Guilbeault does propose a media bill to Canada's parliament, it may not be the last. Australia's Morrison previously called on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pressure big tech platforms to pay publishers, which would be particularly notable given there are more Facebook users in India than any other country. Earlier this month, Sushil Modi, a parliamentarian in India's upper house, called for such a bill to be brought to India's parliament

In defending Facebook's contributions to journalism, Chan pointed to the Canadian Press News Fellowship, an initiative in which Facebook has invested $1 million and created 10 jobs in journalism that publish to a wire service. He said Facebook would commit $8 million more to the News Fellowship over the next three years and that Facebook will have invested $18 million to Canadian journalism in the past six years. Chan also noted that Facebook traffic is an asset to publishers, with the clicks that take users from Facebook to news sites being worth "hundreds of millions of dollars per year to the Canadian news industry."