The CBC, News Media Canada, and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters have filed an application with the Competition Bureau asking it to investigate Meta’s alleged anti-competitive conduct.
This comes after Meta announced that it has started the process of ending news availability in Canada in response to the passage of the Online News Act in June.
The legislation forces Google and Meta to enter into negotiations with news publishers to compensate them for linking to their content.
“Instead of working with the Canadian government and news organizations to further the objectives of Bill C-18, Meta has chosen to actively inflict harm to news organizations, threatening the viability and sustainability of the industry in Canada,” the application reads.
The media groups claim that Meta is violating Section 79 of the Competition Act, which prohibits companies from engaging in practices that prevent or lessen competition in a particular class or species of business.
Facebook and Instagram, the media groups claim, together account for more than 70 per cent of the online social media market in Canada, giving Meta substantial control over access to Canadian news.
Heritage Minister Pascale St. Onge said in a statement last week, “Google and Facebook earn 80 per cent of all digital advertising revenue in Canada. Meanwhile, hundreds of newsrooms have closed. A free and independent press is fundamental to our democracy, and Canadians expect tech giants to follow the law in our country.”
However, University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist contends that the argument for Meta’s “substantial control” of the market “simply doesn’t make any sense”, and “a link is not the same as controlling content.”
He added, “The Senate heard testimony that social media constituted between 17 and 30 per cent of referral traffic for news sites. That is valuable and its loss will have an impact, but it in no way can be credibly described as substantial control over access to news, much less the news industry.”
Meta also claimed that “news outlets voluntarily share content on Facebook and Instagram to expand their audiences and help their bottom line,” adding, “In contrast, we know the people using our platforms don’t come to us for news.”
The media groups, however, maintain that, “Meta cannot claim any legitimate business justification for blocking news content from its digital platforms. Meta does not have any ‘credible efficiency or pro-competitive rationale’ for blocking of news content. Quite the opposite is occurring. Meta’s conduct directly degrades the quality of its social media platforms.”
But former Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez noted during legislative consultations that it was, in fact, a business choice for the platforms in determining how to comply with Bill C-18, Geist pointed out. “The failure to take that business choice seriously is a key reason why the government now finds itself in a legislative mess,” he stressed.
The effects of news blocking, which the applicants argue are “anti-competitive”, are nonetheless, less of a debate. The application claims that it will “inevitably diminish Canadian news consumers’ exposure to news content and the volume of traffic to Canadian news organizations’ websites and applications, thereby impairing their ability to compete for revenue from online advertising and from their readers. Deprived of necessary resources, Canadian news organizations will be unable to maintain a news offering of comparable diversity, quality and quantity.”
The media companies also argue that these types of conduct by web giants like Meta can be observed on a global scale, prompting countries like France, Australia and the U.S. to intervene.
Consequently, the applicants request the Competition Bureau “use its investigative and prosecutorial tools” to prohibit Meta from blocking news content in Canada and “discriminating in any way, by algorithm or by any other means, against the content of Canadian news organizations on its digital platforms accessible in Canada.”
If Meta refuses to cease its conduct voluntarily, the applicants requested that the competitive watchdog file an application before the Competition Tribunal for an order enforcing the above corrective measures.