A very digital kind of censorship has made itself known in Canada.
Beginning in June, social media users across the northern country began to notice something odd about their Facebook and Instagram feeds: News wasn’t showing up. Not only was it no longer on their timelines and newsfeeds, the accounts of media companies, locally and from around the world, were blank, adorned with an austere public service announcement.
“People in Canada can’t see this content,” read the bold text. “In response to Canadian government legislation, news content can’t be viewed in Canada.”
It was an understated announcement of a dramatic policy: With the flip of a switch, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, one of the world’s largest providers of information, had exiled news from its services. And it could get worse: Google is now threatening to do the same, removing news from Google search for Canadians, the backbone of the internet. This standoff weaves a tale of two industries: the American tech giants, who have grown rich by controlling the new infrastructure of information yet are now facing blowback for their monopoly behavior, and the Canadian media, who are divided between large, established companies that have atrophied in the digital age and newer, digitally native startups who grew up on it. Above it all hangs the threat of private censorship of Canada’s internet, a move that news organizations large and small agree would be disastrous for the country’s culture and democracy.
The law that sparked the tech giants’ ire, Bill C-18, aims to force Google and Meta to pay news outlets for their content. Hence the draconian response: If we have to pay for news, we just won’t show any. Also known as the Online News Act, it was modeled after a similar law enacted in Australia in 2021, the News Media Bargaining Code. Like many other Western democracies, Australia had seen its news industry struggle to adapt to the internet, with revenue declining and journalists being laid off in droves. At the heart of it was the internet’s disruption of the advertising-based business model that had funded the industry since the early 1900s: People would read newspapers, publishers would sell their eyeballs to advertisers, and advertisers would provide the cash needed to keep newspapers affordable. Rinse and repeat.
With the rise of the web and the monopolies that accompanied it, this model broke down. By cornering the market, Google and Meta made online advertising far less lucrative to publishers while simultaneously rigging the system to direct profits into their own hands. Today, the two tech giants collect 90% of global advertising revenue, leaving little left to support the media industry, all while enjoying the traffic that flows in from people seeking out the news. The Australian law sought to rebalance the market by forcing Meta and Google to pay Australian publishers for news linked on their platforms. In response, both platforms briefly blocked news in Australia but soon backed down after facing swift public backlash and ultimately signed deals worth more than $125 million with the country’s news companies.
Encouraged, Canada sought to follow Australia’s example. The Canadian media industry began lobbying for a similar law in 2021, which led to the drafting of Bill C-18, which, like the Australian model, threatened Google and Meta with binding arbitration unless they came to private agreements with the country’s news organizations. There were serious numbers involved: the two giants would together be responsible for paying $230 million into Canada’s news sector, with Google accounting for three quarters of the total. The bill became law on June 22, yet it will take until January 2024 to draft the regulations that bring it into force. Meta chose this interim period to perform its news-blocking stunt, while Google promised to hold off until the new year. There was hope that, being a company dependent on delivering information — and therefore, news — Google might come around. Yet by the time consultation on the new regulations ended in early October, the company refused to play ball, saying only major changes to the law could keep it from pulling news from Canadians’ Google searches.
The law meant to save Canada’s news industry was now strangling it. David Walberg, CEO of Canadian LGBTQ+ media company Pink Triangle Press, told New Lines that referrals from Facebook users in Canada to his company’s news content have fallen by 85 percent since the blockade went into effect. Thankfully, the bulk of Pink Triangle’s revenue was already being taken care of by its other business, Squirt, a dating app for gay men. Others had already seen their traffic fall well beforehand. Linda Solomon-Wood, the publisher for online climate publication Canada’s National Observer, said its page views from Facebook dove by 30 percent two years ago, after the platform unexpectedly tweaked its algorithm to deprioritize news. Since then, the publication has diversified its revenue, but Solomon-Wood has learned her lesson: When it comes to tech, her motto is “Don’t build on rented land.” Indeed, Meta’s news blockade comes as a complete about-face from its posture as recently as last year, when it actively showered money and training on news startups. Kevin Taghabon is a co-founder of The Hoser, a Toronto-focused labor publication which, in 2022, was given $100,000 by Meta and granted access to a training course for publishing in the digital age.
“Facebook was a very, very big part of our operating budget in 2022 because of that grant,” he says. Not a year later, the content Meta had trained him to create and market had been banned on its own platforms.
Not everyone has been hit quite so hard. Andrew MacLeod leads Postmedia Network, the media conglomerate that owns and operates the major Canadian newspaper the National Post as well as over 130 smaller local publications across the country. He says his company has seen only single-percentage-digit drops in readership since the Meta ban went into place. “There’s a latent desire for news and journalistic information,” he says. “When one venue gets shut off, that demand will reroute itself.” (The fact that the Post is one of Canada’s last-remaining print newspapers also plays a role, especially since its readership may skew older, though MacLeod wouldn’t speculate.) Despite weathering the blockade, MacLeod has been a major supporter of the bill, saying the long-term future for the news media looks grim without it. “We need to understand that the status quo is not tenable,” he says. “And C-18 is a break from the status quo.”
Yet some smaller publishers worry that while the likes of MacLeod want to disrupt the status quo with the tech giants, they would prefer to preserve it within the media landscape. David Beers is the founding editor of The Tyee, a digital news outlet serving British Columbia, and also serves as an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism. “I’ll give you a short little history lesson,” he laughs. From the day The Tyee started in 2003, he says, he has been warning of several weaknesses in the Canadian media environment. “One is over-concentration of ownership. Number two is over-representation of a single business model, which is super ad-dependent. And finally, it was very poorly regulated in terms of mergers.”
His own business model stands in contrast: Instead of ad revenue, it relies on donations from committed readers and doesn’t use a paywall. He looks bitterly at the larger, older publications now leading the charge on C-18. “It’s like the tail being wagged by the dog,” he says, with the ad revenue-reliant mainstays bargaining on behalf of newer, more innovative entrants. And yet, the dominance of the tech platforms leaves few other options. “The uneasy coalition is holding,” he says. “There’s no other alternative.”
This uneasiness among news companies means Meta and Google may not be faced with a united front. Nineteen of Canada’s independent news organizations are represented by Press Forward, which includes The Tyee and Canada’s National Observer. While the established players have had their say through C-18, there are signs that these digitally native organizations may be more willing to offer the platforms concessions. In an October 2023 open letter, Press Forward urged the federal government to come to terms with Google, even if it means limiting how much money Google could inject into the news industry. “While this may not be in keeping with the spirit of the bargaining framework set out in the Online News Bargaining Act, it’s possible that without a guaranteed limit to their liability, Google will choose to block news which would be disastrous for publications,” they wrote. “With the threat of our content being blocked on dominant search platforms, the existence of our young but thriving news organizations hangs in the balance.”
They might have gone further. Should the country’s news media blink out of existence, democracy as Canada knows it could be threatened. A robust news media that can hold power to account is, at least in theory, one of the cornerstones of Western democracy. In recent months, both independent and traditional media in Canada have shown their worth: This past summer, a collaboration between the legacy Toronto Star and new entrant The Narwhal exposed backroom dealings in the Ontario provincial government, where political cadres gave away environmentally protected lands to politically connected developers. The media’s revelations halted the land swaps and have even resulted in an official corruption investigation against the province’s premier, Doug Ford. Despite this vital work, both outlets are under threat: The Star is close to bankruptcy thanks to the erosion of its advertising-revenue model, while The Narwhal is digital only. With their business models already on shaky ground, a blockade by Google could be the last straw for both publications. Should they fall, Canadians will be left dependent on international news, further eroding its already-Americanized culture and removing watchful eyes from the powers that be. That, and misinformation: While groundbreaking reporting is blocked, Alex Jones’s funhouse of conspiracy, Info Wars, remains freely available on Canadian Instagram, as does alt-media outlet 6Buzz, which has been accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. It’s open season for fake news.
The stakes are high for Canada’s news media and the platforms alike. Google and Meta’s brand identity suffered in Australia, and they could see a similar loss of face in Canada. “You will be seen as villains and enemies of democracy if you hold out this way,” Beers warns. “You will be seen as two companies who threatened Canada’s cultural sovereignty.” It may seem odd that the two tech giants, whose combined net worth exceeds Canada’s GDP, would risk so much for a country of only 38 million people. Yet the world is watching. Both the U.S. and the U.K. are considering similar laws, as are a swath of other countries. Canada is a threat. “They’re playing a high-stakes game of chicken hoping the government will blink, so they can point to Canada from here on out and say, ‘Here’s what happens when you mess with us,’” predicts Beers. The world will be watching — but Canadians might not be able to Google it.
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