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Facebook gets hammered over decision to block news feed to Australia

But was it Australia that went too far?

By Ricky Browne

Ever since Facebook and Twitter found that it was socially acceptable for them to deny the sitting US President from using their social media platforms, the two companies have been escalating their control over the speech of their users.

The problem has now spread to Australia, where Facebook decided it would prevent its users there from accessing news stories. The move came in retaliation for an impending Australian law which sought to force the American company to pay for news content that was accessible on its site.

Facebook has stood up against Australia

Facebook’s argument is that it didn’t seek or ask for these news stories to be placed on its site – so therefore it should have no obligation to pay.

It is saying, in effect, that it is nothing but a portal, so that users can access news sites. Using that argument, it could follow that if anyone should pay in that relationship, it should be the news company, as it is currently getting free advertising for its news stories via Facebook.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT IN FULL

Here is Facebook’s announcement in full, from William Easton, Managing Director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand on February 17.

EASTON… We hope that in the future the Australian government will recognise the value we already provide

“In response to Australia’s proposed new Media Bargaining law, Facebook will restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content. 

The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.

This discussion has focused on US technology companies and how they benefit from news content on their services. We understand many will ask why the platforms may respond differently. The answer is because our platforms have fundamentally different relationships with news. Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue. 

In fact, and as we have made clear to the Australian government for many months, the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favour of the publishers — which is the reverse of what the legislation would require the arbitrator to assume. Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million. 

For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal. News makes up less than 4% of the content people see in their News Feed. Journalism is important to a democratic society, which is why we build dedicated, free tools to support news organisations around the world in innovating their content for online audiences.

Over the last three years we’ve worked with the Australian Government to find a solution that recognizes the realities of how our services work. We’ve long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations. Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for. 

We were prepared to launch Facebook News in Australia and significantly increase our investments with local publishers, however, we were only prepared to do this with the right rules in place. This legislation sets a precedent where the government decides who enters into these news content agreements, and ultimately, how much the party that already receives value from the free service gets paid. We will now prioritise investments to other countries, as part of our plans to invest in new licensing news programs and experiences. 

Others have also raised concern. Independent experts and analysts around the world have consistently outlined problems with the proposed legislation. While the government has made some changes, the proposed law fundamentally fails to understand how our services work.

The Facebook logo

Unfortunately, this means people and news organisations in Australia are now restricted from posting news links and sharing or viewing Australian and international news content on Facebook. Globally, posting and sharing news links from Australian publishers is also restricted. To do this, we are using a combination of technologies to restrict news content and we will have processes to review any content that was inadvertently removed.

For Australian publishers this means:

  • They are restricted from sharing or posting any content on Facebook Pages
  • Admins will still be able to access other features from their Facebook Page, including Page insights and Creator Studio   
  • We will continue to provide access to all other standard Facebook services, including data tools and CrowdTangle

For international publishers this means:

  • They can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts can’t be viewed or shared by Australian audiences

For our Australian community this means: 

  • They cannot view or share Australian or international news content on Facebook or content from Australian and international news Pages 

For our international community this means:

  • They cannot view or share Australian news content on Facebook or content from Australian news Pages 

The changes affecting news content will not otherwise change Facebook’s products and services in Australia. We want to assure the millions of Australians using Facebook to connect with friends and family, grow their businesses and join Groups to help support their local communities, that these services will not change.  

We recognise it’s important to connect people to authoritative information and we will continue to promote dedicated information hubs like the COVID-19 Information Centre, that connects Australians with relevant health information. Our commitment to remove harmful misinformation and provide access to credible and timely information will not change. We remain committed to our third-party fact-checking program with Agence France-Presse and Australian Associated Press and will continue to invest to support their important work.

Our global commitment to invest in quality news also has not changed. We recognise that news provides a vitally important role in society and democracy, which is why we recently expanded Facebook News to hundreds of publications in the UK. 

We hope that 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.

WHAT IT MEANS

About 13 million people use Facebook every month in Australia – which has a total population of about 25 million people. About four percent of them use Facebook to access news.

So Facebook has blocked news sites – but accidentally blocked some other sites which weren’t news sites. That got them some negative coverage.

MORRISON… Facebook decided to unfriend Australia

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison went as far as to say that Facebook had decided to “unfriend” Australia, which he labelled an arrogant and disappointing move.

Meanwhile, Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said that Facebook was “behaving like a North Korean dictator”.

There is an argument that newspapers are in deep trouble, and therefore need a helping hand.

The move by Australia to say that an outside arbitrator would decide what payment Facebook needs to make to news media, would set a precedent, so that the company may be required to do something similar all across the world.

So, it was natural for Facebook to fight against it.

But Facebook is losing the PR battle, as Facebook is looking like it is restricting freedom of speech. The fact that Facebook made the decision and implemented it without warning has created another problem.

Many news reports have painted Facebook in a negative light with this story.

It may be that Facebook will develop worldwide as a platform that no longer carries legitimate news from legitimate news outlets  — and that it is only a place for people to give their own opinions on various matters.

Will the news media benefit from a move like that? Up to now, Facebook users may access a story from a previously unknown news provider. If interested, they may access other stories from that site.

But now, in Australia at any rate, users will never get to learn about other news sites via Facebook.

This may hurt independent news providers more than not receiving payment from Facebook.

It is true that Facebook appears to go to extremes to minimise its tax bill as much as possible.

The world waits to see how this move by Australia, and Facebook’s reaction play out?

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