OTTAWA — Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is being summoned by a parliamentary committee for the third time in four years — this time over the tech company's threat to block news from Canadians on its social-media platforms.
The decision comes a week after the company, which owns Facebook and Instagram, announced it would block news if the Liberal government's Online News Act passes in its current form.
The legislation, also known as Bill C-18, would require tech giants to pay Canadian media companies for linking to or otherwise repurposing their content online.
The House of Commons heritage committee agreed on Monday to summon Zuckerberg, the company's president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, and the head of Meta Canada, Chris Saniga, to appear at an upcoming meeting.
It also agreed to request internal and external documents from Meta and from Google, which recently blocked news access for some Canadian users to test out a possible response to Bill C-18 — with some critics calling the committee's request a violation of privacy and a targeted "shakedown."
Meta did not answer questions on Monday regarding the summons, saying it would be responding directly to the committee.
"As the minister of Canadian heritage said, how we choose to comply with the Online News Act is a business decision we must make,"spokesperson Lisa Laventure said in a statement.
She was referring to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez's response last fall to questions about whether the government was trying to prevent the outcome of companies blocking news content. "It’s a business decision that has to be taken by the platform," Rodriguez said in October.
Zuckerberg has repeatedly ignored summons from Ottawa before, first in 2019 when an ethics committee was studying users' privacy on social media platforms, and again in 2021 when the heritage committee was studying an Australian law similar to Bill C-18.
The House of Commons doesn't have the power to summon individuals who live outside of Canada, but it can enforce the summons if they ever set foot in the country, a move that would be considered extremely rare.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce is expressing concerns that the committee's decision to seek internal documents is "undemocratic," in part because of its concerns that third-party communication from other organizations could be handed over to the committee.
"Requiring and compelling that information to be shared with them in a public forum doesn't even meet the government's own standards around access to information that they need to provide to the public," said Matthew Holmes, the chamber's senior vice-president of policy and government relations.
A Liberal MP is pushing back on the idea that third-party communications could be captured by the committee's request.
"The external communications that we are now asking for do not include correspondence with individuals and solely relate to exchanges about actions the company planned to take or options it was considering," Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said in a statement Monday.
"Whether between internal employees or with outside advisors, the communications included are targeted and reasonable."
Still, the chamber of commerce's CEO, Perrin Beatty, had penned a letter to the committee on Sunday, arguing the move to specifically request communication related to Bill C-18 posed a serious threat to the privacy of Canadians — especially those who oppose the government's Online News Act.
"Every individual and every organization in Canada has the right to decide whether it supports Bill C-18 or any other piece of legislation that comes before Parliament. They should be free to do so without fear of retribution for their views," Beatty said.
Scotty Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, also expressed concern over Ottawa's request for internal documents.
"This feels like a gratuitous shakedown targeted at the U.S.," Greenwood said.
She also criticized the timing of the motion, which was passed three days before U.S. President Joe Biden is set to meet with Canadian parliamentarians.
"If the roles were reversed and the U.S. legislature was targeting Canadian companies, there would be an outrage in Canada," said Greenwood.
Her council held roundtable discussions on Friday with senior U.S. government officials about Biden's upcoming visit and his agenda, she said.
"Right across the board, our members are concerned with the targeting of American companies."
Still, members of Parliament on the committee have decided to pursue even further study of what they are calling abuses of power by foreign tech giants.
"This is not only about C-18," Housefather said to the committee after he introduced the motion for the new study on Monday. It was supported by other Liberal MPs, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, while Conservative MPs on the committee abstained from the vote.
It will speak to "larger issues of how very large companies use anti-(competitive), monopolistic tactics to seek to influence parliaments to meet their desires," he said.
"This is not about whether C-18 is the right approach, or the wrong approach, but it's about how tech companies are tackling that and other similar laws around the world."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
Meta funds a limited number of fellowships that support emerging journalists at The Canadian Press.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press