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Rob Shaw: Eby criticizes 'absolutely disgraceful' Facebook and Google for threats to cut off news content

B.C. government considers pulling its advertising from tech titans
David Eby says news helped Facebook and Google build their businesses. | Dan Toulgoet

The B.C. government is considering pulling its advertising from Facebook, Instagram and other platforms run by tech giant Meta, after what Premier David Eby calls the company’s outrageous disregard for Canadian law.

“I think the conduct of these companies is absolutely disgraceful,” Eby said in an interview Thursday, referencing not only Meta’s behaviour but also Google’s threat to cut off access to Canadian news sources as retribution for a new federal law that supports local media.

“I think everybody understands that local media is important, that it creates much of the content that these companies have relied on in building their business models, and that the intent of the federal government’s initiative was to find ways to support that essential community building media across the country.

“To respond by refusing to engage and shutting off access for Canadians to their local news, because you're in a dominant power position, is extremely offensive.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday suspended federal advertising with Meta, which accounted for $11.4 million in 2021-22.

“The federal government could not in good conscience continue to spend taxpayer dollars buying services from a company that has demonstrated it doesn’t respect Canadian democracy and the pillars of democracy,” he said.

The move was quickly followed by the opposition NDP and Bloc parties, as well as the province of Quebec, media company Quebecor and national broadcaster CBC/Radio-Canada.

"We join other Canadian media organizations that are calling for Canadians' access to news — all news, from all outlets, both public and private — to be protected," the CBC said in a statement.

Google and Meta are opposed to Bill C-18, Canada’s Online News Act, which passed last month and compels the tech companies to compensate news organizations whenever someone clicks on a link to one of their stories.

Google is still negotiating with the federal government towards a solution. Meta, on the other hand, has walked away from the table.

“This is not just a dispute over advertising it's also a dispute over democracy,” said Trudeau.

“It’s a question of recognizing the role that internet giants like Facebook, Meta, Google and others have in our lives and therefore a responsibility that they also wield.”

The B.C. government has so far not followed suit, although Eby said it is a distinct possibility. The province spent approximately $1.4 million last fiscal year advertising on Facebook and Instagram, or roughly seven per cent of its total advertising budget. The previous year the amount was almost $1.7 million.

“It makes it incredibly hard for us to decide to spend our money on these platforms when they conduct their business in that way,” said Eby. “So we’re certainly looking at what the federal government has done.”

The problem, said Eby, is the B.C. government is trying to reach as many people as possible for key advertising campaigns about the wildfire season, and fire prevention. Facebook and Google have a long reach for public safety campaigns.

“We have to weigh out this decision with the importance of reaching British Columbians on key issues,” he said.

“We have another couple of campaigns with Facebook and with Google, but I didn’t know that they could be shut off at a whim by these companies if they disagreed with a political position taken by our government. It is certainly an eye opener for me.”

B.C., like many other governments, increasingly spends public money on digital advertising on Twitter, Google, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and other platforms, versus traditional local media.

The province’s “digital” advertising budget rose almost 138 per cent from 2019 to 2023, from $3.2 million to $7.6 million, while its “traditional” advertising rose only 73 per cent,  from $7 million to $12.1 million during the same period.

As a percentage of all government advertising, digital has risen almost 7.5 per centage points in the last five years, while traditional has dropped by almost the same amount.

The NDP government also passed a law that no longer requires local governments to advertise in local papers for things like council meetings and redevelopment public hearings, freeing them to put up notices on social media sites instead.

As local newspapers, television stations and radio newsrooms haemorrhage jobs, Eby said Google and Facebook have to support them.

“I just struggle to understand why we're at this point, when these companies know what the issue is, when they have already acknowledged it and a willingness to address it,” he said. “To punish Canadians like this and to abuse their dominant position and their ability to communicate with certain groups of Canadians, of British Columbians, is very disappointing to me.”

Meta and Google appear trying to make an example out of Canada, before other countries try to follow suit and force the companies to pay local media for content links. Canada is a prominent player, with close proximity to the United States, but lacks the financial clout to make a dent in the bottom lines of the multi-billion technology giants during a protracted dispute.

““The giants would like to make an example of Canada,” said Trudeau. “They are concerned about the example Canada is setting in saying no. We believe people need to have access to quality journalism  and that journalists should be paid for the work they do servicing democracy.

“I know Canadians will not let themselves be intimidated by American billionaires who are trying to negatively impact our democracy,” he added.

“We will refuse to accept this blackmailing and threats that Meta is trying to do, because we are seeing democracy is threatened across the world. If we continue to weaken our democratic principles then we are lost.”

Say what you want about Trudeau’s many failings and scandals (and I’ve said plenty), but his refusal to give in to greedy tech giants who don’t want to follow the law is the right leadership call. We’ll see if Premier Eby and the B.C. government back Ottawa up on the fight.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. [email protected]