March 6, 2021

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Facebook Australia: how the not-so-social network severed its friendship after landmark news ruling

6 min read

Facebook is facing an international backlash over its decision to block all news articles in the country after the Australian Government refused to back down on plans to pass a law forcing tech giants to pay for journalism content.

Calls to delete Facebook rippled through rival social network Twitter as users found themselves unable to view, share or post links to news articles or other forms of content on Thursday morning. William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, said the decision had been made “with a heavy heart”, adding that international users would also be prevented from posting or sharing news links from Australian publishers.

The dramatic decision follows three years of back and forth with the Australian Government, which is poised to formalise a law forcing the likes of Facebook and fellow tech giant Google to pay news publishers and media companies for their journalism as early as next week, in what it called a bid to address the “bargaining power imbalance” between the news industry and Big Tech.

In Facebook’s haste to rapidly block news sites and pages, it also accidentally restricted charity, state health and emergency services pages, including Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, Save the Children Australia and the Kids Cancer Project, which critics pointed out was preventing Australians from accessing important information during a global pandemic.

Chris Waiting, UK chief executive of independent news site The Conversation, said the company’s articles had already been restricted by Facebook even when its articles are commissioned, written and published by the UK arm, as the business had been founded in Australia.

Blanket ban across sites

“My concern, as someone who runs a smaller news publisher, is whether Australia’s law entrenches the status quo,” he told i. “It needs to be a bit more mindful in delivering high-quality news wherever it’s coming from, not just entrenching the old news brands that have always been there.”

Preventing Australians and international visitors from accessing articles through Facebook poses bigger questions about the platform’s future relationship with news and other global government’s attempts to regular Big Tech. Fellow tech giant Google, which will also be required to pay a ‘fair price’ for news content under Australia’s new law and had threatened to pull its search engine from the country as recently as last month if pushed to do so, announced it had struck a three-year agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp on Wednesday, which will allow the two companies to share advertising revenue.

Facebook Australia: how the not-so-social network severed its friendship after landmark news ruling
Facebook has said that news accounts for less than 4 per cent of content on its news feed (Photo: AFP)

Facebook is adamant that Australia’s law is “penalising [it] for content it didn’t take or ask for”, claiming that as news accounts for less than 4 per cent of the content its users see in their news feeds, the business gains to be made from hosting it are “minimal” at best. Consequently, Facebook has decided to take the hit from refusing to host news content rather than agreeing to recompense its creators, despite news industry complaints about the stranglehold both Facebook and Google exert over the online advertising sector.

Less news on the news feed?

While Facebook’s position has been weakened by Google’s capitulation, it is resisting Australia’s law because it’s re-examining the value of its news feed in general, said Steven Levy, editor at large of Wired magazine in the US and author of Facebook: The Inside Story. Mr Levy, who was granted rare access to Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg while writing the book, said that while he was “unsurprised” at the decision to block Australian news, said the company could well reverse its stance given its past history in changing its mind.

“He’s a pretty stubborn guy, and we’ve seen him behave this way before in terms of speech on Facebook,” he told i. “He will dig his heels in but he’s also very data-driven, and if it becomes clear to him his stance is just not tenable, then he will backtrack – he is a rational person.”

“I know Zuckerberg is rethinking the Facebook news feed: what to emphasise and what’s important to his users and how he can tweak it without people using it less. He is extremely perturbed if a change they make results in less usage,” he said.

“He has to be thinking about a world where such demands [from the Australian government] become common and if so, is he willing to give up those kind of links?”

UK ‘highly unlikely to follow suit’

Paul Tweed, international media lawyer at Gateley Tweed who has lobbied for online platforms to be subject to the same legal and regulatory requirements as the traditional press and broadcast media, said he saw “no prospect” of the same laws being passed in the UK or Ireland.

“I have no confidence whatsoever that either the UK or Irish governments are going to take the necessary steps,” he told i. “This petulant stance by Facebook says everything about their feeling of power and that they have got the right to do what they want.”

“It’s going to become increasingly difficult for governments to take on the tech giants because they’re so entrenched, and that’s why Australia has to be admired for having the guts to do it.”

Questions have been raised about the enforceability of the legislation and its ethics in terms of the function of the internet, enhancing monopolies and further eroding the chance of healthy competition.

Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has raised concerns that the Australian legislation risked “breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online”.

Sir Tim told an Australian Senate inquiry last month than the proposal “would undermine the fundamental principle of the ability to link freely on the web and is inconsistent with how the web has been able to operate over the past three decades”, adding that it could make the web “unworkable” if adopted globally.

Julian Knight MP, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said Australia was the “canary in the coal mine” of social media legislation, calling Facebook’s decision “crass and deeply irresponsible”.

When approached for comment, Facebook directed i to blog posts it posted on Wednesday night from Campbell Brown, its vice president for global news partnerships, and William Easton.

Mr Easton’s post explained that the company’s global commitment to invest in quality news has not changed, and that it hoped “in the future the Australian government will recognise the value we already provide and work with us to strengthen, rather than limit, our partnerships with publishers.”

Different rules in the EU and UK

Countries in the European Union will not be subject to Facebook blocking links to news and media content as in Australia because of new copyright rules protecting publishers in Europe, according to the bloc’s executive.

The copyright reform, which will come into power from June, requires online platforms to agree licensing deals with journalists, musicians, performers, authors and other creative producers to use their work.

The directive is intended to encourage fair bargaining between media companies and online platforms by ensuring that press and quality journalism are paid for, according to the European Commission (EC).

“In the EU, the situation is different [to Australia],” a spokesperson for the EC told Reuters.

“The copyright reform – that needs to be transposed into national law by 7 June 2021 – already starts to bring concrete results for the European media sector, as proved by the recent announcement of the agreement found between Google and publishers in France.”

Other regulators around the world may choose to try and follow Australia’s example in pushing tech platforms to sign commercial agreements with news publishers in order to host links to their content.

The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee urged the UK Government to adopt a similar model to Australia last November, through a new code of conduct designed to right the “fundamental imbalance of power” between online platforms and news publishers. The proposed news bargaining code would be enforced by the Digital Markets Unit regulator, which is due to launch in April.

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