Canadian pols demand Meta lift 'reckless' ban on news content during deadly wildfires

Members of the Canadian government have taken to social media demanding Meta lift a "reckless" ban on domestic news while wildfires continue to rage in the western provinces, citing the safety of its citizens.

“Northwest Territories under threat by wildfires — and lack of local news,” read a headline from an article published Friday by The Canadian Press.

Calling Meta’s decision “reprehensible," a communications professor from Ottawa’s Carleton University told the news outlet that "up to 50 percent of Canadians use Facebook to find out what's happening in cities and towns across the country.”

Regarding the article, Canada's Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge agreed that "Meta's reckless choice to block news ... is hurting access to vital information on Facebook and Instagram."

“We are calling on them to reinstate news sharing today for the safety of Canadians facing this emergency. We need more news right now, not less,” the Minister posted on X Friday afternoon.

In early August, Meta began blocking news access for Canadians on its Facebook and Instagram platforms in response to the controversial Online News Act passed by the Canadian parliament in June.

The legislation, which is set to take place later this fall, would force tech giants, like Meta and Google, to pay for any content produced by local news outlets that are posted on their social media platforms.

Earlier, Quebec’s Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez also said the ban meant people did not have access to crucial information, while Ontario’s Member of Parliament and ruling Liberal Party’s Chris Bittle also stated Thursday that "Meta's actions to block news are reckless and irresponsible."

Those living in remote Northwest Territories, such as the small town of Yellowknife, have been forced to flee the wildfires in mass evacuations.

The townspeople have alerted Canadian media outlets that the ban is preventing them from sharing important information about the fires.

Yellowknife's Cabin Radio digital radio station manager, Ollie Williams, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that people have been resorting to posting screenshots of information on Facebook since they could not share links to news feeds.

In an email response to the accusations sent to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, a Meta spokesperson stated that the company had activated the "Safety Check" feature on Facebook, allowing users to alert friends and relatives that they're safe in the wake of a natural disaster or a crisis.

Canada Meta news ban
Wildfires rage in British Columbia, Canada, July 25th, 2023. Image by agilard | Shutterstock

The spokesperson also noted that Canadians could use Facebook and Instagram to access “content from official government agencies, emergency services, and non-governmental organizations.”

Late Friday, Minister St-Onge posted an official statement on Meta's stance, slamming the tech company as “irresponsible” for choosing to block news before the bill has actually taken effect, given the dire circumstances.

“They would rather block their users from accessing good quality and local news instead of paying their fair share to news organizations," St-Onge said.

“The world is watching Canada. Other countries are looking at introducing similar legislation to tackle the same challenges,” she stated, citing the US, the UK, and New Zealand.

A free and independent press is fundamental to our democracy, and Canadians expect tech giants to follow the law in our country," the statement continued.

We are going to stand our ground. After all, if the government can't stand up for Canadians against tech giants, who will?" St-Onge said.

Meantime, Meta has argued that forcing the platforms to pay for shared news content is unsustainable for its business, announcing the ban in a detailed post on its website on August 2nd.

Meta also claims established media outlets have been able to use the platforms to grow and connect with their audiences for free, a value worth over $175 billion US dollars annually.

All news articles, audio-visual content, and/or news links posted by any Canadian or International news publisher or broadcaster will no longer be viewable or shareable on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms by the Canadian people, Meta stated at the time.

Joining Meta, Alphabet’s Google has also called Canada's plan “unworkable” and promised to pull news content from its social media platforms, including YouTube, prior to the bill taking effect.

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