Facebook's sudden move on Wednesday to cut off Australians from the news (and the rest of the world from Australian news) was as surprising as it was draconian. It blocked Australians from sharing 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 an example of how the platform will respond to the almost certain future attempts to regulate its operations – not just in Australia, but around the world.
Now that we've had a few days to see how things turn out, it seems like the general consensus from media experts is that no one is a winner here, but at least Facebook has a point. Also, many experts just don't like the proposed Australian law that inspired Facebook. So while Facebook was right to oppose the law, the way it raised its objection was too abrupt, clumsy, and potentially harmful.
Also, by demonstrating the significant role the platform plays in keeping users informed, Facebook is taking a big gamble. On the one hand, it could spur the Australian government to come up with a law favoring Facebook so that it reverses the news block – the outcome Facebook almost certainly prefers, other than that there is no new law at all. But the situation could just as well prove how much market power Facebook has. This, in turn, could be the reason for regulations to control Facebook's power much more tightly.
The mandatory bargaining code for news media and digital platforms – currently making its way through the Australian Parliament and likely to be passed before the session ends on February 25 – requires Facebook and Google to conclude payment agreements with news organizations if they allow users to share news content on their respective platforms. If not, an arbitrator will come up with a payment agreement for them. Google and Facebook initially threatened to pull their services out of the country if the law passed, but as that passage seemed increasingly likely, their responses were very different. Google started making deals with publications. Facebook, "with a heavy heart, ”Cut the country to its knees by banning news outlets altogether.
Australians were suddenly unable to share news links on their timelines, and publications found their pages had essentially been erased from the content. There was also a global impact: Australians were unable to share international news links as international news publications were blocked in the country, as were the indigenous ones.
However, the ban didn't just affect the news. While Facebook told Recode it intended to "use a broad definition to respect the law as it was drafted," the company appears to have been overzealous in banning it. Facebook blocked many pages and links from those weren't newsincluding charities, bike paths, Facebook itself, and government agencies, including health sites, like the country prepares to begin the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine. Either Facebook's block was hasty and sloppy, or it was hateful – or it was a combination of both. In any case, it didn't look good.
"Facebook managed to divert attention from a flawed piece of legislation and into its own reckless, obscure force," wrote Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School. "Even for a company specializing in public relations disasters, this was quite an achievement."
Techdirt founder and media analyst Mike Masnick, on the other hand, thought Facebook had every right to do what it did. He even argued that the news ban is in the interests of a "free and open internet" as Australian law will force Google and Facebook to pay a "link tax" that he says is "inherently problematic".
"A bunch of lazy newspaper executives who haven't adapted and haven't come up with better Internet business models don't just want traffic, they want to get paid for it," Masnick wrote“This is like saying that NBC should not only make an ad for Techdirt, but that it should pay me for it too. If that seems totally nonsensical, that's because it is. The link tax makes no sense. "
Many of those who criticize the new Australian law point out that Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp dominates the Australian media, is likely to get the most out of it. After all, when the law goes into effect, Google and Facebook would have to pay Murdoch, who used his significant leverage over the Australian government to push for such legislation for years. Example: News Corp. has already made a multi-year multi-million dollar deal with Google (Facebook's ban was announced and implemented just hours after the Google-News Corp deal was announced). Australia's other media giants, Seven West Media and Nine entertainment, also worked out great deals with Google. But it remains to be seen how the law – or its threat – would benefit smaller publishers who don't have the same resources or power to negotiate deals with one of the largest companies in the world.
Among those who have a problem with the law itself, there are many agree with the motivation behind it: Google and Facebook have benefited from the news industry. The platforms get traffic from users reading and sharing the news, but more importantly, they dominate the digital ad industry. Since most news outlets rely heavily on digital advertising for their revenue, they are almost forced to agree to Facebook and Google's terms and prices. So the tech giants are getting their fair share of those ads, while news publications have effectively lost their business model.
That dominance – and the decline of the media – is why the law was like that recommendation from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which has been researching Google and Facebook for years. Chief Rod Sims said that he believes the two have too much market power, and that the law is necessary for media companies to have a chance of getting a fair deal for a cut in the profits those platforms have made from their content.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison strongly urged Facebook to reconsider and "befriend us", saying the block is "not a good move". was and may affect the business beyond Australian borders. Canada, France and the European Union are supposed to be taking into account similar laws, and the United States is pursuing antitrust action against Facebook, Google and other Big Tech companies at both the state and federal levels.
“There is a lot of interest worldwide in what Australia is doing,” Morrison told the Associated Press"That's why, as with Google, I invite Facebook to participate 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 unfriend Australia because Australia is very friendly."
But some of Australia's 13 million Facebook users didn't feel very friendly in the wake of the block. Some of them told Recode that they saw Facebook's moves as an abuse of power and feared that they would now miss out on important news or emergencies, or that the news vacuum created by the block would be filled with more misinformation. But one Recode reader had a different opinion: he hoped people would seek the news themselves, rather than just read the headlines shared by friends.
“I would feel much more comfortable if all Aussies got their news straight from the source,” he said. "I think this would be best for quality journalism and the strength of our democracy."
It seems some Australians are trying to do just that: The Australian Broadcast Company's app was the most downloaded app in Australia's App Store in the days following the ban.
We will see how things progress. And if you live in Australia, you should go straight to your favorite news website for updates.
Rebecca Heilweil contributed to the reporting of this story
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