End of August 2023. In the same days when the package of norms on digital services and markets (DSA and DMA) comes into force in Europe, which protects the rights and data of users and provides sanctions for platforms that do not reveal how the their algorithms work and do not remove content deemed illegal, on the other side of the ocean "big tech" or rather Facebook/Meta is being targeted by the Canadian government in a clash that has lasted for months now. Since the Ottawa parliament approved a law which, inspired by EU legislation on copyright (the "Copyright Digital Single Market Directive ", 2019/790), requires social media to remunerate information portals for news that is shared on social media, the Californian giant has decided to resist and since August 1st the links to news sites, published by users on Facebook, can neither be opened nor previewed.
“It is unconscionable that a company like Facebook would choose to put profit before local media being able to provide up-to-date news to Canadians, and reach them where Canadians spend most of their time, online, on social media, on Facebook”. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's attack arrives at the peak of a disastrous season in terms of the number and virulence of forest fires, when news and updates on evacuations and disasters bounce on social media.
During a press conference from one of the eastern territories on August 21st, the Canadian Prime Minister spent a couple of minutes lashing out at the social media giant: “Right now, in an emergency situation where having updated local news is more important than ever, Facebook puts company profits before people's safety".
Copyright and chasing readers
Trudeau's reaction is part of a clash that has pitted the government and Meta against each other for several months: Facebook, to avoid having to pay for journalistic content, has decided to prevent the opening of any links belonging to media outlets on the platform. In practice, since August 1st, if users share the link to a journalistic article or television report, in Canada it will not be possible to see the preview, and once the link is clicked, it will read "content not available".
The back and forth between Facebook and the Canadian government, which also cancelled every advertisement on the social network in recent months, begins with the approval of the law on online news, the Online News Act, Bill C-18 : the new rules are inspired by an Australian law strongly inspired by EU copyright rules. Like European copyright regulations, Canadian legislation also recognises that a large part of traffic on social media is generated by the free sharing of journalistic content which, being covered by copyright, should be remunerated in some way.
Both EU rules and Canadian law, and soon also a law being developed in California passed with bipartisan approval, require that this remuneration be decided on the basis of agreements between the platform and the individual publisher; in Italy in particular, where the directive was adopted with legislative decree 177/2021, it is up to Agcom, the Communications Authority, to establish the fair compensation that publishers can expect from social media.
But why is the Canadian Prime Minister attacking Facebook and talking about democracy being in danger? “The choice is Facebook's. In a democracy, quality local journalism is important, and even more so now, when people are worried about their homes, worried about their communities, worried about the worst summer we've had in a long time due to extreme events". Ultimately, one might respond, if users want to consult an online body of information, they are completely free to do so by opening any browser.
Could it be that Canadian users do not realise this? Could it be that their “presence” on Facebook almost entirely covers their online activity, making the rest of the web virtually non-existent or somehow difficult to reach?
The summer broke all records for quantity, duration, and extension of forest fires: this year throughout Canada, since April alone, there have been 5,900, for a total area of over 15 million hectares, equal to 150,000 square kilometres, like half of Italy in smoke. Seven times more than the average of the last ten years. And, as in 2021, many of these fires came close to towns, with smoke and flames forcing the authorities to evacuate them. That is why Trudeau talks about local journalism and up-to-date news, and criticises Facebook for preventing Canadians from accessing this vital news from the virtual place "where Canadians spend much of their time", namely Facebook itself.
The big web made of small spaces
The peculiarity immediately catches the eye being here in Canada, especially in the peripheries and in the native communities: it seems that using the Internet is just accessing Facebook, whether to call someone or to find out what is happening in the world or to buy a boat. In fact, if the block decided by Facebook took place in Europe, the authorities and publishers would simply invite users to exit the Facebook app and open a browser to directly access the contents of the media. But Trudeau explicitly asks that local media be guaranteed the ability to reach readers "where Canadians spend much of their time". Right there, on Facebook.
Even the EU package of the Digital Services Act (legislation on digital services) and the Digital Markets Act (law on digital markets), which entered into force on August 25th, obviously starts from the assumption that European citizens now spend a large part of their time online, on platforms where they consult timetables, buy and sell, get information, exchange opinions, seek advice, book trips, order food, listen to music, watch films. We are not just talking about social media, and we are not just thinking about Facebook, but about the complex of platforms and "gatekeepers" who manage traffic and online activities.
Therefore, while the Canadian Online News Act follows the EU legislation on copyright, the vision of the DSA and the DMA is broader and aims to introduce guarantees into the digital world (on trade, on data protection, on good repute, etc. .) already existing in the physical world. If at a political and media level much emphasis has been placed on the aspect of the removal of contents deemed illegal, on the obligation of moderation of social platforms, and on the management of so-called disinformation, in fact the package is an attempt to regulate the digital sphere according to shared and shareable principles.
Misinformation, which the law does not mention
The emphasis on disinformation and the removal of content by social networks has probably altered its reception, both among political forces and among observers and even among users: there has been a lot of talk, perhaps too much, about potential censorship without going into in detail of the mechanisms. There was a passionate debate on the presumed harmful damage of disinformation without fully contemplating the right to free expression and the concrete risks of a crude approach. It is true that in the 102 pages of the DSA, for example, the term "disinformation", which occurs 13 times, all in the first 30 pages dedicated to the premises, does not appear in the legislative text: in fact, the regulation only speaks of "illegal contents", therefore explicitly in violation of European or individual member state laws, such as incitement to hatred or violence, harassment, child pornography, advocacy of terrorism.
Article 16 is dedicated to the reporting and action mechanism that allows any person or entity to "notify them of the presence on their service of specific information that such person or entity believes constitutes illegal content". Such mechanisms are easy to access and use. The new regulation adds guarantees for users, specifying the obligation for portals to adopt transparent mechanisms in a context where so far the platforms have managed the removal of content in a "wild" manner, to say the least. As self-proclaimed sheriffs of a Far Digital West, causing some collateral damage in terms of freedom of expression and democratic debate.
This is why the words of the Canadian Prime Minister are all the more surprising, as he stands up as a champion of press freedom and local journalism while facing the social media giant; and it is interesting that the latter is understood as a place, albeit virtual, where citizens spend most of their time. As if it were a question of regulating circulation in a shopping centre. A place which, although privately managed, is called by Canadian law to respect "the principles of freedom of the press and the independence of journalism", independence to be guaranteed also through the economic sustainability of small provincial newspapers.
“Social media – echoes Great Chief Stewart Phillips, president of the Union of Indian Chiefs of British Columbia – have become a tool for community organisation, an infrastructure where news can easily be shared. We don't know what will happen in the long term, but we already know that not being able to share news has already disoriented our communities and put lives at risk. The emergency portals made available by the government and civil protection are not enough, they do not have the same reach as social media".
And it is perhaps on this fragility of users, under special surveillance in a closed context, that the research and reflection of experts, or philosophers, could immediately focus. To understand where we are going, and see how narrow the web can actually be, and how little the horizon of world wide web surfers actually is.
Freedom of expression
This content is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.