Facebook’s sudden move to disconnect Australians from the news (and the rest of the world from Australian news) was both startling and draconian. He blocked Australians from sharing any news links, Australian news publications from hosting their content on the platform and the rest of us from sharing links to Australian news sites. It could also be a preview of how the platform will respond to almost certain future efforts to regulate its business not only in Australia but worldwide.
Now that we had a few days to see how it played, it seems like the general consensus from media experts is that no one is the winner here, but Facebook at least has a point. Many experts simply dislike the proposed Australian law that inspired the Facebook move. So while Facebook had the right to challenge the law, the way it did record its opposition was very unexpected, clumsy, and potentially harmful.
Also demonstrating the considerable role that the platform plays in keeping users informed, Facebook is getting what could be a great game. On the one hand, this could prompt the Australian government to come up with a law that Facebook prefers in order to change the news blocking result that Facebook almost certainly prefers except that there is no new law at all. But the situation can prove just as easily how much market power Facebook has. This, in turn, can make regulations control the power of Facebook even stronger.
The Code of Conduct for Media and Digital News Platforms that is currently paving the way through the Australian Parliament and is likely to pass before its February 25 session ends will require Facebook and Google to negotiate payment agreements with organizations of news if they allow users to share news content on their respective platforms. If they do not, an arbitrator will set up a payment agreement for them. Google and Facebook initially threatened to withdraw their services from the site if the law were passed, but as that passage seemed increasingly likely, their responses were very different. Google started making deals with publications. Facebook, with heavy heart, cut the place on the knees completely stopping the news.
Australians suddenly found themselves unable to share news links in their chronology, and publications found their pages essentially deleted with content. There was also a global impact: Australians could not share international news links, as international news publications were blocked in the country just like domestic ones.
The ban did not only affect the news, however. While Facebook told Recode that it intended to take a broad definition to abide by the law as it was drafted, the company appeared to be overly jealous in its ban. Facebook blocked many pages and links since were not news, including charity, bike paths, Facebook itself and government agencies, including health sites, as a site prepare to start distributing Covid-19 vaccines. Either the Facebook block was hasty and careless, or it was malicious or it was a combination of both. In any case, it was not a good sight.
Facebook managed to divert attention from the wrong legislation and its reckless, vague power, wrote Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University School of Journalism. Even for a company that specializes in public relations disasters, this was quite accomplished.
Techdirt founder and media analyst Mike Masnick, on the other hand, thought Facebook was entirely within his rights to do what he did. He even argued that banning the news is in the best interest of a free and open internet, as Australian law would force Google and Facebook to pay a connection fee he thinks is fundamentally problematic.
A bunch of lazy newspaper executives who failed to adapt and find better online business models not only want traffic but they also want to get paid for it, Masnick wrote. This is like saying that not only should NBC have an ad for Techdirt, but it should pay me for it. If this seems completely pointless, it’s because it’s. The connection tax does not make sense.
Many of those who criticize the new Australian law finger that Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp dominates the Australian media, is likely to gain more from it. After all, when passed, the law would require Google and Facebook to pay Murdoch, who used his considerable influence in the Australian government to push legislation like this for years. Case in point: News Corp has already done a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal with Google (Facebook ban was announced and implemented just hours after the Google-News Corp deal was announced). Australias other media giants, Seven West Media AND Nine Fun, has also worked great deals with Google. But it remains to be seen how the law or its threat would benefit smaller publishers who do not have the same resources or power to negotiate deals with one of the world’s largest companies.
Among those who have a problem with the law itself, many subscribe with the motivation behind it: Google and Facebook have taken advantage of the news industry. Platforms get traffic from users who read and share the news, but more importantly, they dominate the digital advertising industry. Since most media rely heavily on digital advertising for revenue, they are almost forced to agree to the terms and prices of Facebook and Google. So tech giants get a good cut from those ads while news publications have effectively lost their business model.
This dominance and decline of the media is why the law was the law RECOMMENDATION of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which has been searching for Google and Facebook for years. Commissioner Rod Sims said that he believes both have a lot of market power and the law is necessary for media companies to have a chance at a fair deal to cut the profits that those platforms have made with their content.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison strongly urged Facebook to review and make us friends again, saying the block was not a good move and could have consequences for the company across Australia’s borders. Canada, France and the European Union are believed to be considering similar laws, and the United States is pursuing antitrust action against Facebook, Google, and other Big Tech companies, both at the state and federal levels.
There is a lot of global interest in what Australia, Morrison, is doing told the Associated Press. I therefore invite, as we did with Google, Facebook to engage constructively because they know that what Australia will do here is likely to be followed by many other Western jurisdictions.
Morrison added: It’s not okay to not befriend Australia because Australia is very friendly.
But some from Australia, 13 million Facebook users were not feeling very friendly after the block. A number of them told Recode that they saw Facebook moving as an abuse of power and feared they would now lose important news or emergencies, or that the news vacuum caused by the bloc would be filled with more misinformation. But one Recode reader had a different view: He hoped people would search for the news themselves, rather than just reading any headlines shared by friends.
I would be much more comfortable if all the Aussies would get their news directly from the source, he said. I think this would be best for quality journalism and the strength of our democracy.
Looks like some Australians are trying to do just that: Australian Broadcast Companys app was the most downloaded app in the Australias App Store in the days after the ban.
Take a good look at how things are progressing. And if you live in Australia, you will need to go straight to your favorite news site for updates.
Rebecca Heilweil contributed to the reporting of this story.
Open source made possible by the Omidyar Network. All Open Source content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
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