Gerretsen talks Bill C-18 while actively running ads on Facebook

Kingstonist file photo of MP Mark Gerretsen in 2019. Photo by Tori Stafford/Kingstonist.

Meta, the massive technology company that owns Facebook and Instagram, recently announced their decision to stop allowing the sharing of news on its platforms to Canadian audiences, in reaction to the enactment of Bill C-18. In response, the Canadian federal government announced on Jul. 5, 2023, that it would cease advertising through Meta. Despite this pledge, Mark Gerretsen, Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston and the Islands, continues to advertise on Facebook.

Gerretsen has been an outspoken champion of Bill C-18, the so-called Online News Act, and its goal to ensure proper compensation for those news agencies and journalists who report the news.

An overview of Bill C-18, the Online News Act

Gerretsen spoke with Kingstonist by phone on Tuesday, Jul. 25, 2023, to discuss Bill C-18: An Act respecting online communications platforms that make news content available to persons in Canada, which received royal assent on Thursday, Jun. 22, 2023.

The legislation, built around similar legislation enacted in 2021 in Australia, was first announced in April 2022 by Pablo Rodriguez, then-Minister of Canadian Heritage, and described as a bill “to ensure fair compensation for news media and the sustainability of local news.” A press release from the Ministry of Canadian Heritage detailed that since 2008 more than 450 news outlets have closed, with over 60 of those closures occurring in the past two years.

While many people across the country continue to refer to the effects of Bill C-18 as the “government censoring news content from Canadians,” the intent of the legislation is, in fact, the opposite, according to MP Gerretsen.

“Why would we ever want to censor Canadians from the news? Like, it doesn’t make any sense? What’s the motive?” Gerretsen said when asked what he says to those who refer to the legislation as news censorship. “It’s a red herring. And it’s an attempt to just distract. And quite frankly, in my opinion, a lot of it is motivated by those big tech giants… It’s no secret that conservatives support those huge tech giants that often create billionaires at the expense of the middle class and people trying to make a proper livelihood.”

The press release from the Ministry of Canadian Heritage provided context on the goals of Bill C-18. “Digital platforms and social media are now the gateways where people find, read, and share news. Because of this, advertising revenues have shifted away from local news and journalists to these gatekeepers, who profit from the sharing and distribution of Canadian news content.”

The release addressed the enormous amounts of money that tech giants have gained from Canadian audiences. “In 2020, online advertising revenues in Canada reached $9.7 billion, with two companies taking in more than 80 percent of those revenues. It’s time to address this market imbalance.”

With that in mind, Bill C-18 requires tech giants to make “fair commercial deals with outlets for the news and information that is shared on their platforms.”

“The deals would need to provide fair compensation, respect journalistic independence, and invest in a diversity of Canadian news outlets, including independent local businesses, among other criteria. The bill allows media outlets, big and small, to bargain collectively. This is fundamentally fairer for Canadian news media, which will be able to negotiate on more equal terms with the tech giants,” the Canadian Heritage press release noted.

While Gerretsen said it is “extremely early to be able to determine if the legislation is doing what it can do,” he pointed to the Australian example that Canada is following, saying, “The legislation that we have is heavily modeled after similar legislation from Australia. And Australia also went through very similar growing pains when their legislation was enacted that Canada is going through.”

Gerretsen pointed out that journalists and publishers whose work is shared predominantly through social media and search engine platforms are not fairly compensated for that content. “If you don’t get compensated for that, well, you don’t have a livelihood… We need that independence and free press to continue to do the work that they do… Whether politicians like the reporting does not change how important it is that [reporters] are doing it.”

Responses from Meta and Google to Bill C-18

Following the royal assent of C-18 on June 22, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, updated its webpage dedicated to the pending legislation.

“Today, we are confirming that news availability will be ended on Facebook and Instagram for all users in Canada prior to the Online News Act (Bill C-18) taking effect,” the messaging from the social media conglomerate said. “We have repeatedly shared that in order to comply with Bill C-18, passed today in Parliament, content from news outlets, including news publishers and broadcasters, will no longer be available to people accessing our platforms in Canada.”

Similarly, Google chose to respond to the legislation with promises to cease access to news in Canada through its platform.

“Bill C-18 has become law and remains unworkable. The Government has not given us reason to believe that the regulatory process will be able to resolve structural issues with the legislation,” wrote Kent Walker, President of Global Affairs for Google. “As a result, we have informed the Government that we have made the difficult decision that when the law takes effect we will be removing links to Canadian news from our Search, News, and Discover products and will no longer be able to operate Google News Showcase in Canada.”

Mixed responses from the federal government

In response to those moves, then-Minister Rodriguez announced that the federal government had suspended advertising on Facebook and Instagram on Wednesday, Jul. 5, 2023.

However, Gerretsen has continued to run sponsored content on Facebook up to and including today, Wednesday, Jul. 26, 2023.

Sponsored content, paid for by MP Mark Gerretsen, as seen on Facebook on Monday, Jul. 24 (left) and Wednesday, Jul. 26 (right), 2023. Screen captured images.

So how does Gerretsen reconcile his continued use of the social media platform for advertising with the pledge that the federal government would cease doing so?

“It’s important to distinguish between the federal government and Parliament. Parliament is separate from the government. The government is basically cabinet — and I’m not trying to be technical or split hairs, but — when the government does that, they basically meant any of that stuff that they do, you know,” he said, explaining that the federal government has historically used advertising on social media platforms to “educate the public on different things that are government programs.”

“Our roles as 338 members of Parliament don’t fall [under] the government. We’re under members of Parliament, and we decide how to spend our money in our advertising at the local level,” Gerretsen continued.

“I mean, it’s certainly given us cause for reflection in my office… We’ve started to think, is there another [way], you know, how else should we be doing [our advertising]? And we’ll get to that point, too, especially if some kind of deal is not reached. We’re just kind of waiting to see what happens.”

Gerretsen noted that his sponsored posts on Facebook are not funded by the federal government nor the Liberal Party of Canada, but rather through the budget each member of Parliament is allotted through the House of Commons.

Asked for details on the amount he’s spent on advertising through Meta platforms across the past two years, Gerretsen’s office pointed Kingstonist to the “Detailed Contract Expenditures Report” for the MP, a “proactive publication of financial information” offered by the House of Commons for each MP and posted online.

According to that report, since Bill C-18 was announced in April 2022, Gerretsen has spent $22,247.48 for advertising through Facebook/Meta.

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