Who: Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
What: “Wanted,” a poster campaign and website that accuses Facebook of profiting from the “theft” of content from Canada’s media companies, with advertising dollars flowing to Facebook instead of the content creators.
When & Where: There are about 300 posters up for the next two weeks in seven major markets: Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Halifax and Montreal. There’s also a dedicated website, Newsthief.ca.
Why: The goal here is twofold: educate the public about the theft (Friends’ word) of media content by tech giants, and try to force policymakers to take action, says Bernhard.
Facebook is renowned for aggressively fighting attempts to regulate its business, but some countries have taken a hardline stance against the company in recent months, says Friends’ executive director, Daniel Bernhard.
In April, for example, the Australian government ordered the country’s competition watchdog to create a mandatory code of conduct for the tech companies (including Google) that would require them to compensate companies for using their content.
Similarly, France’s competition watchdog has also ordered Google to pay publishers for reusing snippets of their content in its News aggregation service or in searches.
“Requiring these companies to pay for the content they use is very do-able and possible to act on very quickly,” says Bernhard. “We want Canadians to be asking politicians why they let companies like Facebook behave this way.”
Bernhard accuses the federal government of “always looking into things,” but says there’s increased urgency for traditional media companies whose financial struggles have been exacerbated by the advertising downturn.
Last month, Canada’s major newspaper publishers penned an urgent letter to the Canadian government asking it to correct an “historical inequality” dating back to the birth of the digital platforms.
Signed by several high-profile newspaper executives including Postmedia CEO Andrew MacLeod, The Globe and Mail publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley, and Toronto Star publisher John Boynton, the letter accused the Facebook and Google duopoly of “exploiting tax loopholes while making billions of dollars off the back of original content producers” and noted that the situation is urgent because of the “huge advertising revenue declines” created by the global pandemic.
How: “Wanted” posters feature a black and white image of an unsmiling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, accompanied by a description of his crime: “Theft of news content.” The posters drive to the NewsThief.ca website.
Bernhard is blunt: “We are saying ‘You are in the same business as any other media provider—the only difference is that you’ve decided you don’t have to pay for any content you provide,” says Bernhard. “When you take someone’s stuff without asking for it or paying them, there’s a word for that, and we’re using that word.”
Counterpoint #1: Some independent media brands have said that Facebook has provided them with sorely needed reach and recognition. “We’re not talking about outlawing Facebook, we’re talking about Facebook paying content creators for the content they predominantly benefit from,” says Bernhard.
The analogy Bernhard uses is radio stations, which derive advertising revenues from the music they play, but fairly compensate artists for that music.
Counterpoint #2: Wait, doesn’t Friends have a Facebook page? Yep, and its 14,724 followers are nearly four times the 3,751 followers it has on Twitter.
“I think it’s like driving a bus to a climate rally: you’ve got to do it if you want to be there,” says Bernhard (who stresses he hasn’t had a personal Facebook account in four years). “We’re not trying to say Facebook shouldn’t exist, we’re just trying to say that it should be required to operate fairly and responsibly, like the government requires most other information businesses to do.
“We’re not trying to organize a revolt of people to delete Facebook,” he adds. “Our call is to the government to require these companies to pay for the content that fuels their profit. These guys have to play fair.”
And we quote: “They have content that attracts attention, and they sell ads against that attention. That’s what newspapers did, what TV did, what radio did. The only difference is that [Facebook’s] main innovation isn’t technological, but moral—they decided they shouldn’t have to pay for that content, like their competitors.” —Daniel Bernhard, executive director, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting