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The Perils of Facing Down FacebookThe Perils of Facing Down Facebook

The Perils of Facing Down Facebook

Canada’s federal Heritage Minister needs a better grip on who he’s dealing with before shaking his fist too often at Mark Zuckerberg’s social media colossus, Peter Menzies writes.

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Topics: Journalism, Law, Ethics, Technology
The Perils of Facing Down Facebook September 15, 2020  |  By Peter Menzies
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Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is determined to pick a fight with Facebook in his bid to find a way to fund failing newspaper publishers - a battle that may end with news media being blocked from access to global social media audiences.

Over the past year, Canadian news content providers - led by Winnipeg Free Press publisher Bob Cox - have pushed the government to force social media giants to spread their wealth to the nation’s newsrooms.

And why not? The publishers did the unthinkable a year ago and accepted $600 million in taxpayer’s loot promised by the Liberal government during an election campaign. Fresh off that tradeoff, their new argument is that large global companies are making a lot of money when people post their news stories and opinion pieces on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. It’s just not fair, they say, that they don’t get a piece of the action, so the government needs to take up their cause.

Their news product is wildly popular, they insist, yet they are poor. Forget about who innovated in response to the Internet and who stood still as change swirled all around them: Tech giants are rich and could only have become so at the expense of newspapers. Or so their arguments go.

A preview of what awaits us is already playing out in Australia where news organizations got their government to frame legislation that would compel social media companies to complete commercial agreements with publishers that – 20 years after the Internet first began disassembling their business model well before the advent of social media – would make them whole again.

No worries mate, said Facebook, we’ll just not allow people in Oz to post news stories because we can get by quite nicely thank you without them.

While first trying to reach an agreement with the Down Under publishers without being legislated into it, Facebook said most people continue to use Facebook in the manner which it was intended - to post pictures of their family, gardens and travels and connect with distant and lost friends and relatives. As a result, news content providers were chagrined to hear that only four percent of Facebook’s Aussie postings involved their product. And here’s the sting in the tail: the value Facebook provides by giving newspapers a free distribution platform is about (Aus) $200 million a year. Crikey. Who should be paying whom here?

In Canada, Mark Zuckerberg’s company says it’s still working to finalize the value proposition it represents to news companies here but says it expects the final numbers will be “enormous.”

Unimpressed, Guilbeault seized the opportunity to make more friends within the mainstream news community by accusing Facebook of “bullying” and acting in an “immoral” fashion.

According to Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, Guilbeault sees data as “the new oil.” Honestly, it’s that bad.

“I don’t like bullying attitudes,” Guilbeault told National Post. “This really reminds me of how big polluters acted 20 years ago, and I don’t think it’s a very constructive approach.”

Displaying a somewhat sketchy understanding of the user-generated content business model, he went on to tell the Post that Facebook’s planned blocking of news site posts “is going to be a growing problem for them unless they decide to face the issue.

“If Facebook starts boycotting all these countries, at some point their business model is going to face some serious challenges,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Guilbeault ever read Facebook’s submission to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission:

“If there were no news content available on Facebook in Australia, we are confident the impact on Facebook’s community metrics and revenues in Australia would not be significant, because news content is highly substitutable and most users do not come to Facebook with the intention of viewing news.”

Shaking a Canadian fist at a large corporation based south of the border has always been good politics, but as the University of Ottawa’s Dr. Michael Geist pointed out in his blog last week, it’s helpful to know what you’re talking about.

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“This dispute is not about the future of media, the regulation of social media, or threats to democracy,” wrote Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law and is a member of the Centre for Law, Technology and Society. “It is simply a battle over money, being fought primarily between a giant Internet company and giant media company. Facebook users post many things – photos, videos, personal updates, and links to various content online, including news articles.

Those news articles do not appear in full. Rather, they are merely links that feature a headline, photo, and brief description that then send users to the original news site for more.”

Whether it’s this or other attempts to regulate the Internet in defence of status quo institutions that refuse to adapt to the Internet age, Guilbeault is quickly building a reputation as a Heritage Minister who treats the Internet as if it’s a cable network and the world around it as if it’s 1985. As his cabinet colleague Jonathan Wilkinson said this week in advancing new green fuel standards in the midst of an economic crisis, “Canadians want to think about the future.”

Unless Guilbeault assumes a similarly progressive intellectual pose, his policies and his fights risk doing the country a great deal of harm.

(Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and past vice-chair of the CRTC)

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