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Pascale St-Onge warns Facebook it could soon face 'heavy penalties' as feud over news rages on

The federal government is not negotiating with Meta about its decision to block news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada, Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge has said.

But the Liberal MP, who was until recently the president of a union representing journalists – and a strong critic of Ottawa – said government officials do sometimes “say hi” to staff from the tech giant when they “cross paths.”

St-Onge spoke to NowMedia about the state of news in Canada this week as the Meta ban, which has been devastating for the country’s media, grinds towards its one-year anniversary this summer.

Meta first threatened the drastic measure before the Online News Act, also known as Bill C-18, had passed into law. It followed through on its threats in August, two months after the bill was given royal assent, saying the legislation, which was designed to force firms like Meta to pay for news content, was “unworkable.”

“The legislation is based on the incorrect premise that Meta benefits unfairly from news content shared on our platforms, when the reverse is true,” it said in 2023.

<who> Photo credit: Pascale St-Onge/X </who> The heritage minister speaking earlier this year.

Meta’s decision has led to a collapse in web traffic for many outlets – particularly local ones – and made it harder for them to raise revenue from advertising.

It’s also prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, BC Premier David Eby and many other elected officials to attack Meta, accusing Mark Zuckerberg’s company of undermining democracy and putting profit before safety during the likes of wildfires.

Meta could face ‘quite heavy penalties’

St-Onge, who represents a Quebec riding that straddles the US border, told NowMedia that, “unfortunately,” Meta has “taken the decision not to negotiate” and is attempting “to not be regulated.”

“Now that the legislation is fully passed, the next step is going to be the CRTC [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission], that will make the decision whether or not Meta falls under the legislation,” she said, adding that Bing and “perhaps other platforms” could also come within the law’s remit when it is “fully implemented” at the end of the year.

“If it does, there are some quite heavy penalties that are part of the legislation that Meta could face and also an obligation to negotiate with the media sector. And so we'll see in the next few months how that plays out with Meta but, in my opinion, they meet all the thresholds.”

The minister’s remarks about the CRTC appear to confirm what law professor Michael Geist told NowMedia earlier this month.

He said he thinks the federal government could “encourage someone to complain” to the body that Meta is, “even without [news] links,” somehow violating the Online News Act.

But Geist said he’s “not convinced that this is a good strategy” because “it would likely lead to yet more blocking,” and represents a “doubling down on the legislative error.”

There are various ways to get around Meta’s ban and post news content, including by uploading screenshots of news stories and by using tools to fool Facebook into ignoring links to articles.

Another method is to simply post news content in a way that doesn’t fall afoul of the social media giant’s blocking system.

<who> Photo credit: 123RF

The man who runs the popular “Canada Proud” Facebook page, for example, told Thomson Reuters last month that he’s seen a surge in traffic since traditional news was banned from the platform.

Canada Proud – which is by no means the only such page – regularly posts videos and screenshots directly related to news, usually including attribution to the media outlets that have done the work to obtain the story.

In what some may find an amusing irony, the page posted a video on May 11 showing the prime minister answering a question about Meta’s news ban which was asked by a NowMedia reporter.

The video attracted tens of thousands of views and hundreds of comments and interactions, eclipsing NowMedia’s story, which could not be posted to Facebook or Instagram.

‘Every democratic country is moving in the same direction’

St-Onge, however, remains confident that Meta can be brought to heel, and that news can be returned to Facebook, which was until the ban the most important social media network for news outlets.

She does have some tricks up her sleeve, including cooperation with foreign allies who could theoretically work together to attempt to force Meta to back down. Discussions are planned with G7 countries, she said, and also Brazil and Australia.

“Every democratic country is moving in the same direction where tech companies need to be part of the success of our societies,” she explained. “And when there is a risk, when we're talking about our democracies and our population being able to inform themselves and communicate together, it's essential that we put public interests at the forefront of everything that we do.”

She added: “Of course, every legislation is going to be adapted to our jurisdiction and the way that our governments function, but if we agree on general principles like the liability aspect, like the fact that companies need to align with public interest and servicing the population, I think that this is the way that tech giants are going to have to conform to our legislation.”

Geist, though, is one of numerous media experts who think the government’s strategy is destined to fail.

<who> Photo credit: NowMedia </who> Justin Trudeau in West Kelowna, where he laid into Meta over its news ban.

Meta is no longer even interested in news, Geist said earlier this month, and so is unlikely to ever submit to paying for it. But it would probably allow news back onto its platforms, he said, if the federal government compromised.

But that, he believes, is very unlikely given that the Liberal government is, in his words, “stubborn.”

Trudeau’s response to NowMedia when asked if he would compromise with the US company last week – “this is on Meta” – suggests that Geist is correct.

St-Onge appears to be in agreement with her prime minister, telling NowMedia: “I don’t think we should compromise on the principle we’re trying to implement.”

She added: “Any company that creates new products, whether it's toys for kids, they have to make sure that the toys are safe for their kids. Whether you create a new car, you have to make sure that it lives up to the highest security levels.

“When it comes to social media and tech platforms, right now there is not enough accountability put on the creators of those products and we are discovering that there's more and more harms done in our society.”

It’s the government’s job, she said, to “make sure that companies are liable for the products that they put out.”

“In the case of social media, like Meta leaving the platform to disinformation and misinformation and making a conscious choice to leave an important source of information in Canadian life, especially when there's wildfires and emergencies, is not something that's socially acceptable.

“And therefore we're going to keep on moving forward.”

David Eby’s change of tone

The minister’s comment about the harmful effects of social media would likely prompt Premier Eby to nod his head with enthusiasm.

The leader of the BC government hailed what he called a “historic collaboration” with Meta earlier his week, explaining that the province will work with the company, as well as other social media giants, to tackle child exploitation.

It’s a dramatic change in tone from Eby, who had previously joined Trudeau in censuring the firm for holding British Columbians “to ransom” and said the news ban threatened people’s safety during wildfires.

He even said Meta had built its platforms “on the backs of local media.”

<who> Photo credit: Government of BC </who> David Eby, whose feelings towards Meta appear to have changed in recent months.

In January, he said Meta pledged to “send a lobbyist over to meet” with him, but he refused, insisting he’d only speak with the firm if it lifted its ban on local news content.

“It was more important to them to make a point with the federal government than it was to ensure reliable local news information was available for communities that were threatened by wildfire,” Eby said then.

But in his announcement earlier this week, Eby didn’t mention the news ban. Instead, he said he had discussed with Meta a way to skirt around news entirely and simply have “official sources” amplified during emergencies like wildfires.

Eby refused to speak with NowMedia earlier this month when asked to clarify whether he’d discussed Meta’s news ban with representatives of the company.

But the Finance Ministry did answer some questions, insisting that “access to news should not be blocked” and that journalism is an “essential service” that keeps people safe during emergencies.

The ministry also said it has maintained its partial boycott of advertising on Facebook and Instagram, but still spends cash with the firm to communicate “critical health and safety information.”

‘My preference would be that the government doesn't have to support journalism’

While Eby appears to be less interested in calling out Meta nowadays, St-Onge, who was severely critical of the firm while president of the Fédération nationale des communications et de la culture media union, has no such qualms.

She told NowMedia that Meta has shown it’s “not a good corporate partner” and has let Canadians down in an area that is “essential to our democracy.”

It’s unfortunate, she added, that “a lot of news outlets” have based their “business model” on social media, which then gives the likes of Meta the power to “decide whether or not [they’re] going to be successful.”

She said she’s seeing “so many journalists lose their jobs” as advertising cash “is going to a platform like Meta.”

The federal government has launched various programs in recent years in an attempt to get money into newsrooms. St-Onge said she wants Canada to have “as many professional journalists” as possible.

One such program is the Canadian Journalism Labour Tax Credit, which allows qualifying outlets to claim as much as 35 per cent of their employees’ pay, up to a maximum salary of $85,000.

Geist has questioned the transparency of the application process, arguing that “the line is at best blurry” between outlets that qualify and outlets that don’t.

NowMedia has itself been rejected by the federal government when applying for the credit, with a self-described “expert” panel claiming the company did not produce “original content.”

When NowMedia asked St-Onge about this matter, she said simply that “there are some published criteria around how to receive those tax credits.”

But she did add, speaking generally, that the government wanted “many publications that produce a great variety of news and that can inform populations on local issues, but on also national and international issues” and said she is always looking at how to improve Ottawa’s journalism initiatives.

The minister also stressed that she wanted any government funding for journalists to “respect media independence.”

<who> Photo credit: NowMedia </who> Kelowna-Lake Country MP Tracy Gray, a critic of the Online News Act.

“Of course, my choice and my preference would be that the government doesn't have to support journalism,” she said.

“But unfortunately, we've seen hundreds of publications close their doors in the last decade, and I have personally seen thousands of colleagues lose their jobs across the country as the revenue stream went more and more to the tech giants.

“And this is where the government's intervention is important. On one hand it's to create a fairer market and on the other, it's to make sure that we don't lose a pillar of our democracy, an essential counter-power to the work that we are doing as politicians.”

‘I don’t think you're a great supporter of democracy if you don’t support journalism’

The Conservative Party voted against Bill C-18 and Pierre Poilievre has criticized the Online News Act in the past.

He has said very little about the legislation in recent months, however, though two of his MPs – Tracy Gray and Dan Albas – have told NowMedia they think the bill has been bad for media.

St-Onge, who studied journalism but never worked as a journalist, said she thinks “every political party should be concerned” about news outlets closing.

But she rejects the idea that junking the Online News Act would fix the situation.

“Reversing that piece of legislation will only create more confusion and more difficulties for the news sector to stay alive,” she insisted.

A former bass player in a rock band, St-Onge has been known to show a pugilistic side when discussing the Tories.

But she was relatively mild in her criticisms of the opposition on this occasion, explaining: "I think this is a difference of vision, of how we see the country – some want to destroy what we've put in place and what we've created to help – but I think that there's more to do.

“I think that we need to keep on moving forward to support the journalism sector. I have a lot of questions when some politicians or political parties don't care about what's happening in the news sector and to journalists across the country, because it is a counterbalance, it is essential to democracy.

“And I don’t think you're a great supporter of democracy if you don’t support journalism.”

NowMedia has requested interviews and comments from Meta on numerous occasions in the past. Most recently, the company's head of communications in Canada, who is a former Trudeau staffer, simply emailed a link to this webpage.

Read some of our other articles about the Online News Act and its effects here:

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