Yesterday, Meta promised to not make the same mistakes in Canada that it made in Australia, after the Canadian Heritage committee members questioned whether it would take critical information off its platforms if Bill C-18 is passed.
In February 2021, Facebook blocked news content after the Australian government passed similar legislation intended to protect smaller news publishers. The ban on news was reversed a week later, following talks with the government.
Facebook’s decision to ban Australian news was widely criticized, notably because it restricted some government health department and emergency services pages.
The chaotic news takedown, one MP stated, was carefully planned over months, as he referred to the whistleblower documents revealed by a Wall Street Journal report in May last year. Meta, at the time, publicly stated that restricting critical information was “inadvertent”.
Nonetheless, Meta’s head of public policy for Canada, Rachel Curran, acknowledged during the meeting that mistakes were made in Australia; “The way Australia unfolded was not ideal. There were some technical errors made in the way that we removed news from our platform. We fully intend that those errors will not be made in the Canadian context. We’re going to make sure that we’re fully transparent with Canadians and parliamentarians as we move towards news removal, if we’re forced to do that.”
Curran also noted that Meta has not created a special team of product staff and engineers “to deal with the content blocking scheme” in Canada, nor have they been asked to “sign NDAs in an unprecedented way”, as was revealed in Australia.
However, NDP MP Peter Julian insisted that Meta “is not reassuring us today”, and called Facebook’s move to block emergency services in Australia “reprehensible”.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather added that, according to the whistleblower documents, Facebook deliberately ignored error signals that could have paused the takedown in Australia, and for the first time in its history did not develop a list of sensitive accounts before activating the Australian takedown which threatened Covid-19 vaccine rollouts and responses to wildfires.
Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, maintained in a statement that Bill C-18 is not a replication of what happened in Australia. “The laws are different in important respects – and C-18 will go further than the Australian legislation. First, the Australian code doesn’t apply to Meta because we haven’t been designated by the Treasurer there. If we do end up being designated and forced to pay publishers, we will be faced with the same difficult choice we are making in Canada.”
Further, Curran explained that the Canadian legislation, unlike in Australia, does not allow for any kind of discussions or a process to unfold after the legislation is passed, adding that Meta has proposed an amendment that it not be automatically designated under Bill C-18 and to allow discussions to take place.
These discussions, or “short term compromise,” are what led to the reversal of the ban in Australia, Curran noted.
Housefather went on to ask whether Meta is affirming “under oath that Meta in no way will impede Canadians’ access to information that is fundamental for their health and safety,” to which Curran said, “we don’t take down pages we don’t mean to and that do not fit the definition of news.”