By Kalinga Seneviratne in Sydney
The tech juggernaut Facebook’s shock decision to block all news feeds from Australian media outlets this week in response to a proposed new Media Bargaining law, that will force social media giants to pay for news content that is posted on their platforms, has created fury among Australians.
But it is also turning attention to the impact of Facebook – and Google – on Australian journalism.
Facebook banned Australian users from accessing news in their feeds on the morning of Thursday, February 18, as the government pursues laws that would force it to pay publishers for journalism that appears in people’s feeds.
The legislation was introduced to Parliament in Canberra in December 2020. The House of Representatives passed it earlier this week.
The bill that has wide political support in Australia is now under review by a Senate committee before it is presented for a vote in the upper house.
In a lengthy statement issued by Facebook on February 18, the company revealed that it would bar Australian news sites from sharing content on the platform.
Within moments of the announcement being made public, Australian news organisations, media commentators, interest groups and local consumers of Facebook that runs into millions, began voicing their fury.
‘Go directly to source’
National broadcaster ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) immediately posted a notice on their news pages on the website calling on Australians to “go directly to the source” by downloading from their own news application.
Facebook’s head of policy for Asia-Pacific, Simon Milner was unrepentant during an interview on the ABC network, arguing that they disagree with the broad definition of news in the new legislation.
“One of the criticisms we had about the law that was passed by the House of Representatives [on February 16] is that the definition of news is incredibly broad and vague,” he said
Facebook has said earlier that the proposed laws fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between their platform and publishers who used it to share news content.
In fact, Facebook has been arguing for a long time that they are a publisher that provides a free platform for news organisations.
But many media organisations and scholars argue that they are bleeding out revenue from the Australian media running advertising on these pages, which otherwise used to go to the media companies and their platforms such as newspapers and TV stations.
A first of its kind, the success or otherwise of the Australian legislation is closely watched by other countries, especially in Europe.
US government pressure
Interestingly, according to an ABC report on January 18, the US government had tried to pressure the Australian government to drop the proposed legislation.
According to the ABC, a document with the letterhead of the Executive Office of the President has said: “The US government is concerned that an attempt, through legislation, to regulate the competitive positions of specific players … to the clear detriment of two US firms may result in harmful outcomes.”
The Australian government, however, sees the new legislation as designed to ensure these media companies are fairly remunerated for the use of their content on search engines and social media platforms.
Google has begun signing deals with publishers in response, but Facebook has chosen to follow through on its threat and remove news for Australian users.
In an interview on ABC Radio on February 18, Glen Dyer of popular Crikey! media that uses Facebook extensively to reach their audiences described Facebook’s behaviour as “resembling China’s (Community Party)”.
He argued that in the past year China has been imposing trade restrictions literally overnight on spurious grounds inconveniencing Australians at the behest of China’s leader, and Mark Zuckerberg is also behaving in a similar high-handed way.
“It [Facebook] has a management structure that is controlled by a small group headed by Mark Zuckerberg,” he noted.
“Australian advertisers should boycott Facebook”.
However, Dyer added that they would not have the guts because “most of these Australian companies are controlled offshore and the local executives would not risk their bonuses”.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking on ABC TV’s flagship current affairs programme 7.30 Report on February 18, argued strongly for an across the board tax on advertising revenue designed in such a way that both local and foreign companies operating in Australia cannot avoid it.
“The real question is that the revenue model for media has moved into other platforms like Facebook and Google. There is less revenue support for journalism and that has been a worry for some time,” said Turnbull, who was a merchant banker before moving into politics.
“Government will be better off imposing a tax on advertising revenue across the board …. take that revenue from Facebook and Google and make the money available to support public interest journalism,” he recommended.
Turnbull believes that government has lost the plot because they are saying to companies like Facebook and Google, “you have to pay money to those [media companies] who put contents on your site [even though] you are not stealing it or breaching copyrights, you have to pay”.
Thus, he appealed to Australians to go directly to Australia media news platforms and applications – like that offered by the ABC – without using Facebook.
Digital threat to democracy
Chris Cooper, executive director of Reset Australia, a global initiative working to counter the digital threat to democracy has also condemned Facebook’s action.
“Facebook is telling Australians that rather than participate meaningfully in regulatory efforts, it would prefer to operate a platform in which real news has been abandoned or de-prioritised, leaving misinformation to fill the void,” he argued.
Reset Australia had made a submission to the government during the legislation’s drafting stage arguing that the true impact of the legislation should be changes to the news, media and journalism landscape in Australia, that should ensure promoting greater diversity and pluralism within the Australian media landscape.
Cooper argues that Facebook does not care about Australian society nor the functioning of democracy.
“Regulation is an inconvenient impost on their immediate profits – and the hostility of their response overwhelmingly confirms regulation is needed,” he says.
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg blasted Facebook’s decision to block access to pages like 1800Respect, the WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services and the Bureau of Meteorology.
Speaking on ABC he said that this was done at a time that a bushfire emergency in Western Australia depended on this information, and also when Australia is about to roll out the covid-19 vaccines where people needed access to reliable information.
Frydenberg noted that this heavy-handed action will damage its reputation.
“Their decision to block Australians’ access to government sites — be they about support through the pandemic, mental health, emergency services, the Bureau of Meteorology — was completely unrelated to the media code, which is yet to pass through the Senate,” he said.
“What today’s events do confirm for all Australians, is the immense market power of these digital giants.”
Kalinga Seneviratne is a media analyst and author. This article was first published on IDN-InDepth News and is republished with the permission of the author.