Facebook De-Platformed My Community TV Station In Canada. U.S. Broadcasters Should Take Heed
If I told you that I reside in a country where news is blocked on Facebook, Instagram and soon vanishing from Google searches, you might think of distant autocracies like North Korea.
But from where I’m writing this is my home in St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, Canada. I can see Maine from my window just across the bay. The U.S., however, has never felt further away.
As I scroll CHCO-TV’s Facebook page, belonging to the small community television station where I work, the once-flourishing hub for news, community updates, live-streamed meetings and local content now reads “Page no longer available.” I can still post content to the page, but when I press publish, an automated response tells me, “This content cannot be viewed in Canada.” That means me.
Canada is one of a handful of countries around the world pioneering the adoption of new laws that require tech giants to compensate news outlets for content shared on their platforms and search engines. Canada’s Online News Act, known as Bill C-18, became law in June, setting the stage for a significant shift in the relationship between search engines, social media giants and news creators.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) plans to establish a negotiation framework between news organizations and tech giants in fall 2023 and will work as a middle man enforcing mandatory bargaining starting in 2025.
One of the most significant developments of this law has been the standoff between the Canadian government and tech giants like Meta and Google. These companies have vehemently opposed the law, arguing that Canadian news outlets benefit more from their platforms than the other way around.
Meta’s opposition to Bill C-18 escalated to the point where the social media behemoth enacted a sweeping news block on both Facebook and Instagram in August, effectively preventing Canadian users from sharing or accessing news content. Google is expected to follow suit later this year blocking Canadian news from appearing in searches.
In 2021, Australia proposed similar legislation, prompting Meta to block news content temporarily until a resolution was reached a few weeks later. The Australian law allowed tech giants to negotiate private deals with publishers outside of the framework of the regulations, leading to approximately $200 million in annual payouts to news organizations, with the vast majority going to mainstream media.
The Canadian situation, however, is different. With the backing of domestic industry giants set to profit from Bill C-18, Canadian lawmakers have not shown the same willingness to compromise, emboldened by mainstream media seeking similar multi-million-dollar payouts to their Commonwealth counterparts. This has led to the current impasse. The ramifications of this deadlock are profound, foreshadowing potential scenarios in the U.S. and beyond.
The fate of local news outlets hangs in the balance. Even before this turn of events, many small newsrooms in Canada were on the brink of closure due to plummeting traffic, but Meta’s news block is eroding small newsrooms almost overnight.
CHCO-TV has been an important part of people’s daily lives for over three decades in Southwest New Brunswick, but it’s hard to know how this challenging time will affect our TV station, especially if there’s no end in sight.
We have survived years of being stifled by telecommunication giants in our own country, with one of Canada’s two biggest cable providers, Rogers, purposefully limiting our carriage to about 10,000 households while carrying its own version of a community channel across the province. That’s why we’ve had to rely so heavily on Facebook to reach people who don’t have access to our channel. We have 28,000 Facebook followers, which might not seem huge by American standards, but considering there are just 26,000 people in the county we are based in, our following is quite significant.
In the midst of Meta’s news block in Canada, I’ve found myself redirecting our audience to my personal page — a makeshift harbor where our station’s news content is finding temporary refuge. This, however, is not a sustainable solution, nor should it be, but I also know what a powerful tool social media can be in disseminating information in under-served regions like New Brunswick. That’s why I can’t give up on it.
Over the years, CHCO-TV has used Facebook to provide real-time updates during emergencies, most recently during a major forest fire this summer, and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Without local news outlets like ours on social media and eventually Google searches, the unchecked proliferation of misinformation will inevitably prevail, which will have an unfathomable effect on democracy. The irony that I’m living in the free world in the information age hasn’t been lost on me.
As California contemplates its own legislative measures, the Canadian experience should serve as a cautionary tale to the U.S. The erosion of local news outlets, the proliferation of misinformation and the disproportionate influence of tech giants all underscore the need to hold Meta and Google accountable for their role in news distribution while also weighing the unintended consequences of rushed legislation.
Bill C-18 has inadvertently jeopardized the diversity and vibrancy of Canada’s media landscape by putting small and independent voices in the crossfires of big tech versus the Canadian government and Canada’s own media giants. As the embers of local media burn out, the beacon of democracy grows dim.
Vicki Hogarth is news director of CHCO-TV St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada.