The Culture Secretary is reported to be seeking a meeting with Facebook in the wake of the social network blocking access to news links for its 13m users who log on each month in Australia last week.
Oliver Dowden was alarmed by Facebook’s decision, which was made in response to the Australian Government’s plans to formalise a law forcing tech giants including Google to pay for journalism, and is hoping to speak to Facebook to better understand the dynamics at play, a source close to the culture secretary is quoted as saying in the Telegraph and the Times.
Mr Dowden is said to regard Facebook’s withdrawal from hosting online news as a “worrying development” and is reportedly also planning to speak to his counterparts in Australia.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said the Government was “concerned about news being restricted in Australia”, adding that it planned to be robust in defending both free speech and journalism.
“We will be setting up a Digital Markets Unit to promote competition in digital markets to ensure tech companies cannot exploit their dominant market positions. The Digital Markets Unit will be established within the Competition and Markets Authority from April and we will consult on its proposals and its full function later this year,” they said.
“As part of the plans, we will introduce a new statutory code of conduct that will support the sustainability of the news industry and try and help rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms, but we will consult on the form the DMU will take and consult on that later in the year.”
While the culture secretary is yet to make his personal views on Facebook in Australia public, they appear to echo his more forthcoming governmental colleagues.
Julian Knight MP, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, said last week that Facebook’s actions “should be of great concern in the UK” considering our own Government’s plans to regulate social media companies more closely under the forthcoming Online Harms Bill.
“Facebook has shown its absolute disregard for the public interest, being all too ready to use its power to further its own agenda,” he said, adding that the DCMS Committee was “deeply concerned” about the promotion of trusted news sources among the “scourge of misinformation”.
Speaking on Times Radio on Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Mr Dowden was looking “very closely” at how the UK could similarly ensure Facebook paid media outlets for hosting its content.
Mr Hancock said he had “very strong views” on the subject, and while he stopped short of saying Britain should definitely follow in Australia’s footsteps, he said he was a “great admirer of Australia and Canada”.
Canada confirmed last week it was weighing up whether to adopt Australia’s model in requiring Big Tech to pay news companies a ‘fair price’ for links hosted on their platforms or agree a price through binding arbitration or France’s approach of requiring tech companies to negotiate prices with publishers.
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said he had met with representatives from Australia, Finland, France and Germany to discuss the likelihood of forming a united group of around 15 member countries with respects to dealing with tech giants, including “fair compensation for media”.
Facebook itself has been trying to ward off political ill-feeling in the UK by pointing to a recently-agreed Facebook News deal that pays publishers for news articles and other types of content housed under its dedicated News tab.
Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told LBC radio last week that publishers, newspapers and broadcasters voluntarily put content on the platform “because they benefit from it”.
“The UK has taken a very different approach [to Australia] and that’s allowed us to launch something that we call Facebook News just last month, which is a really substantial investment into UK journalism,” she said.
“Publishers choose to put their stories on our news feed because it allows them to sell more subscriptions, it allows them to grow their audiences, and ultimately to increase advertising revenue.
“The issue here is with the law itself, and why we were forced to take the steps that we did, because it penalises Facebook for content that it didn’t take or didn’t ask for, and we think it’s an unworkable precedent.”