Don’t be fooled by Facebook’s latest ruse

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Message from the President Jerry Dias

This column from Unifor National President Jerry Dias and Daniel Bernhard, executive director of FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting, first appeared in the Toronto Star.

If Facebook’s latest plan to pay 14 Canadian media outlets for their content was a good-faith effort to support Canadian journalism, it would not have sworn participating outlets to secrecy, just to kick the tires on their offer.

Facebook is hiding these deals behind non-disclosure agreements because its real intention is not to pay for news, but to avoid paying for it.

Platforms such as Facebook and Google are getting filthy rich from content they neither produce nor pay for. Canadian journalism organizations invest hundreds of millions of dollars in professional, trustworthy news. People continue to consume this content at a high rate, but the profits do not flow to its creators, but to freeloaders such as Google and Facebook, who use their monopolies to corner the market in digital advertising, decimating legitimate news media.

The numbers speak for themselves. An estimated 45% of print journalism jobs have disappeared since 2014, based on a survey of Unifor-represented newsrooms. Canada’s private television workforce has declined by 40% since 2006. Meanwhile, Facebook’s stock price more than doubled during the pandemic.

Enter the government of Australia, which realized that society is immeasurably impoverished when the purveyors of COVID conspiracies make a killing but legitimate journalists disappear. Their response: the News Media Bargaining Code, a law that forces Facebook and Google to strike commercial deals with newspapers, broadcasters, and digital media companies with annual revenues as low as $150,000.

The code mandates binding arbitration to keep Facebook and Google from low-balling, and unless the they strike deals with all media companies, they can’t display any news content at all. This all-or-nothing clause is crucial. Without it, Facebook would drive down prices with divide-and-conquer tactics, pushing holdouts off the platform to scare everyone else into accepting raw deals. The Australian law makes that illegal, which is why Facebook hates it so much.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to stamp out Australia’s insolence by pulling news from its platform for a week last February. Thankfully, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stared him down, Zuckerberg knelt, and the News Media Bargaining Code is now law Down Under.

The audience for Facebook’s Australian tantrum was global. Zuckerberg didn’t want Washington, Ottawa, or anyone else to follow Australia’s lead. But his petulant threat backfired spectacularly in the court of public opinion, so Zuckerberg moderated his approach.

It seems Zuckerberg’s new plan is not to prevent regulation but pre-empt it with token payments that create the illusion of good will. Canada is the first test case, because Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has been emphatic that Canada is next in line to implement the Australian system. He even set a June deadline for legislation.

Two weeks ago, however, Guilbeault announced he won’t deliver until the Fall. With an election on the horizon, that likely means no action can be expected until 2022 at the earliest.

Desperate publishers were devastated. Facebook smelled their vulnerability and swooped in. These deals are probably secret because they reveal that Facebook is paying Canadian outlets some 10% of what they pay in Australia. Publishers can’t like it but what choice do they have? The government repeatedly promised help but hasn’t delivered.

The delay is an unexpected gift to Zuckerberg. He knows that Canadian publishers would never accept pennies on the dollar if they could avail themselves of binding arbitration like in Australia. And he knows that if Canada forced Facebook to pay a fair price for news or forego news entirely, they would pay. Because quality news is extremely valuable to Facebook. It’s a perfume masking the irredeemable stench of lies, hatred, conspiracies, and scams with which Facebook is now synonymous.

Zuckerberg’s ultimate aim is transparent: to stop Canada and the world from following in Australia’s footsteps. He wants to dictate the rules to us before we can impose democratic authority on him.

While politicians and bureaucrats dither and delay, Facebook will use every divide-and-conquer tactic in the book to secure favourable deals from desperate publishers, before regulation makes those tactics illegal.

Which is how we got to these 14 deals with the devil—deals so bad, Facebook won’t let you see them.