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Facebook warns it could block Canadians’ access to news over Ottawa’s online news bill

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Facebook says it is considering blocking Canadians’ access to news sites on its platform, in response to a proposed federal law that would force it to compensate media outlets for carrying links to their articles.

The tech giant upped the stakes in the battle over the online news bill, warning it may block Canadians from sharing or viewing news content out of frustration over the government’s “misguided” approach.

Facebook issued its warning after it was not called to give evidence before a Commons committee considering Bill C-18 to voice its concerns and suggest changes, alongside Google.

Rachel Curran, public policy manager at Facebook, told The Globe and Mail: “We are surprised not to be part of the discussion at the committee.”

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In Australia last year, the platform temporarily blocked access to news on its platforms in response to a similar law. Australians woke up to find that Facebook pages with local and world news sites were unavailable.

The platform lifted the ban days later after an Australian minister held talks with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, and agreed to make amendments to the bill.

Marc Dinsdale, head of media partnerships for Canada at Facebook, said in a blog:

“If this draft legislation becomes law, creating globally unprecedented forms of financial liability for news links or content, we may be forced to consider whether we continue to allow the sharing of news content on Facebook in Canada as defined under the Online News Act.”

He said Canada is “incredibly important” to the platform.

“But faced with adverse legislation that is based on false assumptions that defy the logic of how Facebook works, we feel it is important to be transparent about the possibility that we may be forced to consider whether we continue to allow the sharing of news content in Canada,” he said.

Paul Deegan, president of News Media Canada, said Facebook was threatening Canadians. “It’s déjà vu all over again from their Australian playbook. Canadians will not be cowed by threats,” he said.

But Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in internet law, accused the government of stifling scrutiny of the bill by not setting aside parliamentary time to allow Facebook to be called as a committee witness.

“The decision to shut down witnesses at the Bill C-18 hearing is particularly problematic given the importance of the bill, and the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s estimate that the majority of revenue will go to the CBC and broadcast giants such as Bell,” he said.

On Friday, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Ian Scott, chair of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, which would regulate deals between platforms and news groups if the bill becomes law, gave evidence to the Commons heritage committee on C-18.

Mr. Rodriguez said the bill was about safeguarding the future of journalism and allowing Canadians access to reliable and authoritative news.

“A free and independent press is one of the pillars of our democracy,” he said. “What we are talking about here is about the very existence of independent journalism – we’re talking about its survival.”

Asked by a Conservative MP whether he was concerned about the possibility of Facebook blocking Canadians’ access to news sites, as it had in Australia, Mr. Rodriguez said: “It’s a business decision to be taken by the platform.”

He later told The Globe that the government was having constructive conversations with Facebook as recently as last week. “All we’re asking the tech giants like Facebook to do is negotiate fair deals with news outlets when they profit from their work.”

Mr. Dinsdale said the government’s approach was “misguided” and urged the federal government to work with the platform to make changes to Bill C-18. He estimated that Facebook sends publishers “more than 1.9 billion clicks a year” worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the news industry each year.

“How can $230-million of free marketing not be considered as a contribution to the news industry?” he told The Globe.

Posts with links to news articles make up less than 3 per cent of what people see in their Facebook feed, he said, and Canadians had told the platform they want to see less news and politics on the site.

Google suggested amendments to C-18 on Friday, including changes to allow the smallest community papers to opt into the scheme.

In some provinces, around half of community newspapers are too small to qualify for any compensation, because they do not employ two staff, even though a key aim of the bill is to support struggling local papers.

Google said in its submission to the committee that news groups that adhere to “basic journalistic standards” should be eligible for compensation.

But it wants changes to be made to the wording of the bill to stop “foreign propagandists” and “bad actors” such as the Russian-sponsored news outlets RT and Sputnik, from receiving funding.

Jason Kee, government affairs and public policy counsel for Google, said the current bill “basically means that any two people running a blog can actually qualify – foreign outlets can qualify. This is actually going to compel a platform like us to both fund and support low-quality outlets.”

Google says it also wants the government to abolish what it calls a “link tax” which would make it compensate a news group for a link to a website or news article. It proposes having to pay a news group only if it carries the text of an article in full.

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Nexus applicants can shuffle off to Buffalo as Canada, U.S. expand pilot project

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An experimental bid to rescue the troubled Nexus trusted-traveller program between Canada and the United States has expanded to the Peace Bridge.

Nexus applicants in Canada can now sit down with border agents on opposite sides of the link between Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo, N.Y., New York congressman Rep. Brian Higgins said Thursday.

That’s a departure from what used to be the standard practice of being interviewed by U.S. and Canadian agents at the same time — a process that hasn’t taken place on Canadian soil since before the pandemic.

The new procedure at the Peace Bridge crossing is an extension of a pilot project that began in late September at the Thousand Islands crossing between Alexandria Bay, N.Y., and Lansdowne, Ont., just east of Kingston.

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In both locations, Nexus applicants in Canada submit to two separate interviews: first on the Canadian side with a member of the Canada Border Services Agency, then with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on the American side.

“Border management has gotten more complicated than it has to be,” Higgins said in a statement.

“The U.S. and Canada are longtime friends with interconnected economies. We need to find ways to break down the barriers at our border to better support the flow of people and goods between neighbours.”

The pilot project is considered a partial, short-term solution to the bilateral impasse that has led to U.S. agents refusing to staff Nexus enrolment centres on Canadian soil over what they consider inadequate legal protection.

It’s an “important stopgap,” Higgins said, but the fact it’s needed at all is proof that the two countries have a long way to go before Nexus is back to its pre-pandemic strength.

He called it “a reminder that the U.S. and Canada still need to fulfil the potential of the agreement reached in 2015 to facilitate Nexus application procedures in a seamless way to the benefit of both Canadians and Americans.”

The backlog of Nexus applications in Canada reached as high as 350,000 earlier in the fall, but has been slowly declining since the pilot project began. The Canada Border Services Agency officials did not immediately provide updated numbers.

Higgins said once the project is fully underway at the Peace Bridge, as many as 500 applications could be processed there each week.

It’s a far cry from how Nexus interviews have traditionally been conducted in both countries, with applicants sitting down for an in-person interview that’s jointly conducted by officers from the two agencies in the same room.

That process has been going on as normal in the U.S. since April, when the 13 Nexus centres south of the border reopened for joint interviews after a two-year pandemic-driven hiatus.

Customs and Border Protection, however, won’t send agents to staff centres in Canada without being guaranteed the same legal protections they enjoy on U.S. soil — a condition the federal government in Canada considers a non-starter.

Officials with CBP have so far refused to comment publicly on the dispute.

The impasse turned into a full-blown diplomatic row in October when Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s U.S. envoy, said the program was being “held hostage” to a unilateral attempt to renegotiate the bilateral preclearance agreement under which Nexus was established.

Business leaders and elected officials in both countries have been pressing the two sides to find a solution, describing Nexus as a critical component of the cross-border trade and commercial ties between Canada and the U.S.

That includes a coalition of U.S. lawmakers — Higgins, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) — who wrote to their Canadian counterparts earlier this month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

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Inquiry into Emergencies Act urged to recommend greater oversight of police

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Lawmakers should define how to maintain government oversight of law enforcement while ensuring police independence more clearly, experts told a public inquiry Thursday, arguing that the understanding of where to draw the line has long been too vague.

The concepts of police oversight and independence came up time and again over six weeks of fact-finding testimony at the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is investigating the federal Liberal government’s use of the Emergencies Act last winter.

Throughout the inquiry hearings, police and politicians described a separation between police operations and policy, and said politicians and police boards should never direct operations.

The line was often described as a separation between church and state.

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“For me, it’s pretty clear. Anything operational, we’re advising what’s happening, but we’re not taking direction on how to do things,” RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki testified on Nov. 15. She suggested the federal government should use legislation to more clearly define the line that politicians should not cross.

While an expert panel of witnesses agreed Thursday that the line should be more clearly defined, Guelph University political science professor Kate Puddister said such a stark distinction is unhelpful.

“My perspective is that this distinction, in an attempt to draw a clear line between the two, does a disservice,” she said. “This formulation allows governments to shirk responsibilities with respect to policing, perhaps as a method of political strategy.”

The commission is looking at the events that led up to the government’s emergency declaration in response to the weeks-long “Freedom Convoy” protest in Ottawa and similar protests at border crossings across Canada.

Beyond assessing whether the move was appropriate, the inquiry also has a mandate to make recommendations about how to modernize the law and suggest areas where further study could be warranted.

After hours of testimony from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau concluded the first phase of the inquiry last Friday, the commission has turned to a second phase of expert testimony on a range of issues related to the protests.

The police governance experts who testified Thursday reaffirmed the importance of police services being independent of political interference. Otherwise, they risk being seen as “a tool of the government of the day,” as Ryan Teschner, the executive director of the Toronto Police Services Board, said in his testimony.

But all agreed that police need more oversight over some elements of their operations.

“We have for too long had a rather vague and sometimes often overblown conception of police independence from government,” Teschner said.

Michael Kempa, a criminologist with the University of Ottawa, suggested legislators “simply jettison the term ‘operations’ altogether,” and define police independence “in terms of the exercise of their powers of investigation, arrest and the laying of charges.”

The experts also said that all police services in Canada should have some kind of civilian oversight body, such as a police commission or board.

Most urban police services in Canada are watched by such entities, but provincial police and RCMP are not. The RCMP commissioner reports directly to the federal minister of public safety.

Creating a board would mean that any political direction to police would be public and documented, and it would ensure that “ministerial direction is appropriate and given when necessary,” Puddister said.

Commissioner Paul Rouleau said some of the panel’s recommendations may make their way into his final report, though he wouldn’t say which.

During a second afternoon session, experts discussed the ways that different levels of government, including First Nations governments, work together in an emergency.

Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, recommended that the Emergencies Act be ammended to require consultation with First Nations in addition to provincial and municipal governments.

“Neither the Emergencies Act or the Emergency Management Act mentions First Nations as governments. Everyone else gets notice,” Sayers said.

“Yet when emergencies happen, it is First Nations lives at stake, their lands, resources and their ability to carry out their section 35 protected rights.”

The specifics about which First Nations should be consulted could vary depending on the emergency at hand, she said.

Cal Corley, CEO of the Community Safety Knowledge Alliance, said more consultation between levels of government could prevent the need to invoke an emergency in the first place.

He said if there are “intentional proactive measures” between federal, provincial, territorial, First Nations and municipal governments to address large-scale protests and emergencies, “it should, in most cases and circumstances, establish conditions that negate the need for governments to even consider invoking the federal Emergencies Act.”

Rouleau and his team must deliver their findings by Feb. 6, with the commission’s final report to be made public by Feb. 20.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

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Global Affairs calls in China ambassador over claims of secret police stations

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A Global Affairs Canada official says the department has called in China‘s ambassador numerous times over allegations that secret police stations are targeting that country’s diaspora in Canada.

A human-rights group has reported that China operates secret overseas police stations in more than 50 locations around the globe to keep tabs on its citizens abroad.

The Spain-based group Safeguard Defenders said three such locations operate in Toronto, but the Chinese embassy in Canada has described them as volunteer-run service stations to process things like driver’s licences.

The RCMP said in early November that it is investigating the issue, and officials told MPs in early October that they were aware of the claims.

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On Tuesday, a senior foreign-affairs official said that in recent weeks, his department has called in Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu multiple times over the issue.

Opposition parties say Ottawa should have been more forthcoming with that information.

“We’ve had several engagements. We’ve called the ambassador in on multiple occasions and we have conveyed our deep concern,” said Weldon Epp, the director general for North East Asia.

He offered that confirmation while speaking to MPs at the House committee on relations with China.

“The government of Canada has formally insisted that the Chinese government, including the ambassador and his embassy, take account for any activities within Canada that fall outside of the Vienna Convention … and ensure that they cease and desist,” Epp said.

He was referring to United Nations rules that provide diplomatic immunity to mission officials, who in turn agree to not interfere in internal affairs.

That includes only offering administrative services at embassies and consulates, provided by people who are officially accredited to do that work.

Epp was responding to questions from MPs on what steps GAC had taken since his last appearance at the committee on Oct. 4, when he said he was aware of the claims of overseas police operations.

“The activity that’s being alleged would be entirely illegal and totally inappropriate, and it would be the subject of very serious representations and followup diplomatically,” he told MPs at the time.

Epp said Tuesday he couldn’t disclose whether his colleagues are reviewing the credentials Canada has granted to Chinese diplomats.

On Wednesday, Conservative MPs said Global Affairs should have told the public it had called in the ambassador.

“We really need to see more clarity and transparency from the federal government, and leadership from the prime minister,” said Alberta MP Laila Goodridge.

“Canadians should not be waiting for information to be trickling in slowly, and only as absolutely pressed by this committee,” she said.

Liberal MP Jean Yip said last week that one constituent had asked her about reporting on the alleged police stations, including one in her riding, but that none had told her office about any personal experience with the agency.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month that he raised the issue of interference directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Indonesia, who later berated him for informing media about their conversation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

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