Canada fires
Smoke rises from the Crater Creek (K52125) wildfire near Keremeos, British Columbia, Canada August 15, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

As thousands of Canadians fled raging wildfires in the Northwest Territories on Friday, the country's top leaders called on Meta to reverse its ban preventing users in Canada from sharing news articles on its social networks.

Meta began blocking news links for Facebook and Instagram users in Canada in June after the country passed a law that allows news organizations to negotiate with tech giants to receive payment for articles shared on their platforms. The ban by Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, has rankled Canadian authorities trying to share evacuation information this week across a remote swath of the country where social media is key to disseminating news.

"What Meta is doing currently is unacceptable," said Pablo Rodriguez, Canada's transportation minister, at a news briefing Friday. "We've seen that, throughout this emergency, Canadians have not had access to the crucial information they need. So, I ask Meta to reverse its decision, allow Canadians to have access to news on their platforms."

The evacuation orders in western Canada expanded Friday as the fires spread across the region, and officials declared a state of emergency in Kelowna, a 150,000-person city 170 miles east of Vancouver. Officials had previously urged all 20,000 residents of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, to leave the city by noon local time Friday as wind gusts strengthened. Some went by plane, some by car.

Social media vs publishers vs Canada

Meta's ban on sharing news is the latest development in its years-long battle to oppose regulatory proposals around the world that seek to boost the languishing media industry by forcing social media companies to pay for content. Proponents of regulation have argued that social media platforms are the predominant beneficiaries of the digital advertising gained from news articles, and should share some of that revenue with publishers.

But Meta says the share of revenue drawn from news content is overstated and argues that media outlets benefit from subscriptions and increased readership because their stories are posted on its platforms.

Officials in Canada say the impact of the news ban has been evident during the wildfires crisis.

"Meta's reckless choice to block news before the Act is in force is hurting access to vital information on Facebook and Instagram," wrote Pascale St-Onge, the minister of Canadian heritage, on X, formerly known as Twitter. "We are calling on them to reinstate news sharing today for the safety of Canadians facing this emergency. We need more news right now, not less."

yellowknife canada wildfires
Yellowknife residents leave the city on Highway 3, the only highway in or out of the community, after an evacuation order was given due to the proximity of a wildfire in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada August 16, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

The Facebook page for the city of Yellowknife urged residents Thursday to search on Google for the website owned by CPAC, a Canadian broadcast channel, for wildfire updates. "Due to the recent change in Legislation, the City is unable to share the link because it's a media source," the municipality wrote.

Catherine Tait, the president and chief executive of CBC and Radio-Canada, said the national public broadcaster is one of the few ways residents of the affected areas can find out what's happening beyond government news releases or emergency warnings.

CBC Northwest Territories has 41,000 followers on its Facebook page, while the territory has a population of about 46,000. Because of the remoteness of the region, it is sometimes difficult for the news organization to reach people there. Facebook helped it to do so, playing a "disproportion role in sharing our information," Tait told The Post.

"It's like having your telephone taken away from you, or your radio taken away from you," Tait said of the ban. The chief executive noted that her organization provides news in Indigenous languages, and the social networks are crucial in reaching younger populations.

Tait said she is asking Meta, at a minimum, to reverse the ban until the danger from the wildfires subsides.

The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. Thousands have fled, driving hundreds of kilometers (miles) to safety or waiting in long lines for emergency flights, as the worst fire season on record in Canada showed no signs of easing. Image Credit: AP

On Friday, Meta spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement that "people in Canada can continue to use our technologies to connect with their communities and access reputable information, including content from official government agencies, emergency services and nongovernmental organizations."

News/Media Alliance President Danielle Coffey, whose group has advocated for proposals similar to Canada's new law, said Meta should lift the ban in light of the crisis.

"When the pandemic hit, our newspapers took our paywall down because we thought it was our public duty," she said, adding that Meta, by contrast, is "surgically withholding news and critical information because of a business decision."

Meta has previously threatened to pull news from its platforms in protest of similar proposals in Australia and California. The Australian law has been credited with directing millions to news outlets from Meta and Google. Lawmakers in Washington have also considered passing a temporary carve-out in antitrust law to allow publishers to band together to negotiate with the tech giants over the distribution of their content. Neither the California proposal nor the antitrust bill in Congress has yet to pass.

"They decided that news is no longer a priority" for their platforms, Tait said of Meta's actions in Canada. "Well, guess what? It is a priority for your users."