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Meta witnesses get hostile reception from Liberal MPs

Canada’s plan to force platforms like Google and Facebook to pay for running links is hitting roadblocks

Canadian PoliticsMedia

Last week, MPs confronted Meta executives over their threat to block Canadians from sharing news across Facebook and other platforms. Photo by Christoph Scholz/Flickr.

Heritage committee hearings into the Online News Act turned hostile late last week after MPs were forced to work overtime to hear from Facebook parent Meta and other witnesses. Liberal MPs accused Meta of “threatening” Canadians with “modern-day robber baron tactics” when it warned recently that Facebook might stop running links to Canadian news stories if required to pay for doing so. The treatment Meta witnesses received before the Heritage committee studying Bill C-18 on Friday twice prompted a Conservative MP to ask committee chair Hedy Fry to intervene, but she would not. The men from Meta mostly kept their cool, however, and provided further insights into the social network’s objections to Bill C-18, suggesting at one point that it might even contravene a Supreme Court of Canada ruling.

“It’s kind of shocking that Facebook throws a public temper tantrum to appear before this committee and refuses to answer questions unless they’re friendly softballs from the Conservatives,” fumed Liberal MP Chris Bittle after the Meta witnesses declined to testify about what happened in Australia when Facebook blocked news for several days there in 2020 after a similar bill was introduced.

“You stand here and threaten Canadians to do what you did in Australia which was to take away supports, take away information about vaccines, take away information about suicide crisis centres, take away information from the fire services. You put Australian lives at risk and you come here and threaten to do the same thing to Canadians. It’s absolutely shocking. It’s modern-day robber baron tactics that Meta is demonstrating and you come here and say don’t regulate us, we’re good corporate actors.”

That prompted Conservative MP Rachel Thomas to interrupt Bittle and ask Fry to rule his question out of order for making accusations of the witness. “Mr. Bittle is being very aggressive in his questioning but I don’t think he is being very disrespectful to the witness,” Fry replied.

Liberal MPs pointed to the fact that in addition to blocking access to news for several days in Australia, Meta also blocked the Facebook pages of numerous agencies. Meta claimed it was inadvertent, but whistleblower documents showed it was a tactic to pressure the government. Facebook quickly restored the pages and resumed carrying links to news stories after the government amended its law to allow platforms to opt out of carrying them if they didn’t want to pay. Bittle accused Meta of “fearmongering” when it issued a statement warning that it might pull Canadian news from Facebook feeds if Bill C-18 is passed. “Our intent with last week’s communication was to signal the degree to how unworkable it is for our business,” answered Marc Dinsdale, Meta’s head of media partnerships in Canada. “We hope that we can create a more evidence-based piece of legislation that takes into consideration how platforms and the Internet work.”

That didn’t satisfy Bittle.

“Another question, another non-answer by Facebook from a company that demanded to be here,” he replied. “Should I just ask softballs, Mr. Dinsdale, is that what you’re looking for?”

A former lawyer who is currently parliamentary secretary to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, Bittle has been ruffling feathers during the government’s recent offensive to regulate the Internet. He apologized to University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist in August after suggesting he was racist for protesting government funding of an antisemite. Geist accused Bittle of “witness intimidation and bullying” in September after he requested a government investigation of Digital First Canada after it gave testimony at hearings on Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. On Friday, Bittle said he would be seeking outside evidence about Meta’s blunder Down Under. “I’ll be reaching out to Whistleblower Aid and Libby Liu, their CEO, and request they submit a briefing to this committee [on] the tactics Facebook employed, and Meta, in Australia to endanger lives of citizens without a care,” he told Dinsdale. “It’s truly shameful what you’re doing, sir.”

Kevin Chan, Meta’s head of public policy, received an arguably rougher ride from MPs and frequently sparred with Bittle. “The question wasn’t to you Mr. Chan,” Bittle shouted when Chan tried to answer a question put to Dinsdale. “You should probably listen, Mr. Chan.” At another point, Bittle cut Chan off when he tried to answer. “Don’t talk over me, Mr. Chan,” he said. “I know you have contempt for what we’re doing here.” That prompted Thomas to again protest what she called Bittle’s “vile” badgering of Chan. “I think Mrs. Thomas watches too much Law and Order,” chortled Bittle after Fry again dismissed the objection.

Chan did manage to make some points, however, emphasizing the importance of hyperlinks to the free flow of information online. “Simply put, links are really the lifeblood of the Internet,” he said. “Obviously links connect people from one site to another. It facilitates effectively the free flow of information and therefore free expression.” Canada’s plan to force platforms like Google and Facebook to pay for running links was unheard of, he added. “We have never seen anywhere else in the world an attempt to regulate the free flow of info by putting into scope effectively a toll for links. That is wholly unprecedented globally. It runs counter to any notion of what a link is and how it operates.”

It also runs counter to a 2011 Supreme Court of Canada decision, Chan noted, a short portion of which he read out. “The Internet cannot, in short, provide access to information without hyperlinks,” the court ruled. “Limiting their usefulness would have the effect of seriously restricting the flow of information and as a result freedom of expression.” The ruling in the case of Crookes v. Newton involved posting links to defamatory material, but the court ruled that simply linking to information did not amount to publishing it. “A hyperlink, by itself, should never be seen as ‘publication’ of the content to which it refers.” Such a precedent from the highest court in the land could be used by digital platforms to avoid making payment for posting links in Canada.

Chan said the agreements that Meta has signed with news media in Australia and Canada were not in exchange for content but instead to help them develop new innovation models. “We’re not paying for links. We’ve never paid for links. We don’t pay for links right now and we really don’t want to pay for links. This would go against something that is very important not only for our platform but for the Internet in general. The Internet is owned by everyone.”

He also noted the irony that Canada is currently chair of the Freedom Online Coalition, a group of governments “committed to work together to support Internet freedom and protect fundamental human rights—free expression, association, assembly, and privacy online—worldwide.”

Dinsdale also made the point that, to combat disinformation, Facebook has the largest fact-checking program of any platform, which could be subverted by a clause in Bill C-18. “That includes 90 fact checkers accredited by the International Fact Checking Network, which is associated with the Poynter Institute. We also use AI to do that as well. They then review it and apply labels like false, altered, possibly false, etc.” He said that Bill C-18’s clause requiring platforms to treat publishers equally could undermine those efforts. “Our concern is that if there are the undue preferences clauses in the bill, it does not allow us to reduce the spread of misinformation.”

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at


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