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Trudeau government halts advertising on Facebook, Instagram

OTTAWA — Ottawa announced Wednesday it would stop running ads on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, its first direct response to big tech platforms’ promises to retaliate against the Liberal government’s controversial online news law.

The move prompted Quebec Premier François Legault and the mayors of Montreal and Quebec City to follow suit, while telecom and media company Quebecor had already taken the same step prior to the government’s news.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, joined by his NDP and Bloc Québécois critics, said the federal government would not be targeting Google because the global search giant “has been open to finding a solution” regarding a path forward.

“The reality is the web giants need to respect Canadian law. They need to respect Canadian democracy, and that is the profound message that we are sending today to Meta and Google,” said the NDP’s Peter Julian.

The Online News Act, which passed last month, would compel web giants like Google and Meta to strike deals with Canadian news outlets for the sharing, posting and previewing of their news content. (Torstar, the company that publishes the Toronto Star, lobbied the government in favour of the legislation.)

Both companies have long opposed the law, arguing their platforms generate significant traffic and revenue for news publishers. With its passage, the tech titans have pledged to remove Canadian news content from major platforms like Google Search, Facebook and Instagram for their users in Canada.

That threat, which could hit Canadians in about six months when the regulatory process for the law concludes, could result in millions of dollars in lost revenue for news outlets and the closure of smaller and digital news sites.

“Today we’re calling on both platforms to stay at the table, work through the regulatory process with us, contribute their fair share and keep news on their platform. It’s good for the platforms, good for news in Canada, good for Canadians, good for our democracy,” Rodriguez said.

“You all know by now that the world is watching. This is why in the following days, we’re going to be talking to different countries. Some of them are preparing their own bills on the issue. Different bills, same challenges.”

The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is spearheading a similar legislative effort across the border, said governments cannot “back down” in the face of “monopolies” that will “fight us every step of the way.”

Rodriguez said he has already spoken to American officials, and planned to hold discussions with the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Brazil as they chart their own paths.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez holds a news conference in Ottawa to discuss ongoing efforts to implement Bill C-18, the federal government’s Online News Act. He is joined by heritage critics Martin Champoux (Bloc Québécois) and Peter Julian (NDP).

But other countries will also be watching whether the Canadian government has the political heft — and enough allies — to shake Meta’s resolve.

According to the most recently available data on the federal government’s advertising expenditures, Ottawa spent $11,423,728 on advertising on Facebook and Instagram from April 2021 to March 2022. That included a period in which government advertising activity was suspended due to the 2021 federal election campaign.

“The numbers are the numbers,” said Supriya Dwivedi, director of policy at McGill University’s Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy. “Eleven million (dollars) isn’t really going to be enough, I don’t believe, to sway a company like Meta.”

Dwivedi said it will be critical to see if even more governments at provincial and municipal levels follow in the government’s footsteps.

Rodriguez defended his decision, stating the money saved on advertising will be “reinvested” in the media with details to come on how that would work.

Bloc Québécois heritage critic Martin Champoux said in French the Liberals should introduce “incentives” to coax advertisers away from using social media and toward “more traditional ways of advertising.”

As for whether politicians will be expected to stop posting on Facebook and Instagram, Rodriguez said that such a conversation could “definitely” happen within the Liberal caucus.

The Liberal Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party indicated to the Star they will continue to run ads on Meta’s platforms.

Rodriguez slammed what he called Meta’s “aggressive campaign” and “refusal” to come to the table with the government in response to the legislation, but said he was “deeply convinced that Google’s concerns will be resolved through regulations.”

But both companies have said the regulatory process, during which the finer details of how the law will work will be hammered out, cannot enact the changes they want to see made to the law. Those changes, such as how platforms could be exempt from the framework and clarity on how much cash they’ll be expected to pony up under the regime, needed to be made as the bill was being debated, the companies argue.

A Meta spokesperson told the Star on Wednesday “the regulatory process is not equipped to make changes to the fundamental features of the legislation that have always been problematic, and so we plan to comply by ending news availability in Canada in the coming weeks.”

Google declined to comment, but a blog post from the company’s president of global affairs Kent Walker noted last week that the government’s regulations will not be able to “resolve structural issues with the legislation.”

Rodriguez refused to clarify his contradictory remarks, citing his inability to “negotiate in public.”

Absent from Wednesday’s news conference was Conservative heritage critic Rachael Thomas, whose party also opposes the legislation.

“Common-sense Conservatives submitted changes to fix flaws in Bill C-18 but the NDP-Liberal coalition blocked them. A Poilievre government will replace Bill C-18 and bring home freedom and choice for Canadians,” Thomas said in a statement in response to the government’s announcement.

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel


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