In what can only be called a tantrum, Facebook has blocked Australian users from sharing or viewing news content on its platform, in response to a proposed law that would make tech giants pay for the news content on their platforms.
This would be alarming in normal circumstances, but in the midst of a global pandemic it is absolutely terrifying. Not only have trusted news sites been unable to post anything to their Facebook pages, but government health and emergency bodies have been prevented from sharing information on their pages. Facebook later released a statement claiming that government pages had been inadvertently impacted due to the company taking a rather broad definition of ‘news content’ from the law, and that these pages would be reinstated though they have not given a deadline.
But why did Facebook take such drastic action? Well, in a blog post, the company claimed that the law left it ‘facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of their relationship with the Australian media or stop allowing news content on their services in Australia.’
The law in question has been touted by the Australian government as leveling up the playing field between tech giants and struggling publishers over profits. The Australian government had in the course of these laws cited the fact that of every $100 that spent on digital advertising in Australia $81 goes to Google and Facebook. The law would seek to do this by getting tech companies to pay for content, and would enable news companies to negotiate as a bloc with tech firms for content which appears on the firms news feeds and search results.
When the law was initially proposed, Facebook made no secret of its concerns. It claimed that it had helped Australian publishers earn about $407 m last year through referrals, whilst making minimal gain from news. This follows a similar stance adopted by Google who initially threatened to remove its search engine from Australia if the proposed law went ahead, though the company has since agreed to pay Mr Murdoch’s News Corp for content from news sites across the company’s media empire.
Australians are naturally annoyed and angry about what Facebook has done and have pointed out that the company is one crucial way in which people receive emergency updates about the pandemic and national disaster situations. For that to be so suddenly taken away has left many concerned and worried. Others have also pointed out that by doing this Facebook has set a very dangerous precedent as it is censoring the flow of information.
Australia’s government has stood firm, with the law having passed the lower house of Parliament on Wednesday and enjoying broad cross-party support. Treasurer John Frydenberg said “We will legislate this code. We want the digital giants paying traditional news media business for generating original journalistic content. The eyes of the world are watching what’s happening here.”
Given Facebook and Google’s own claims about Australia’s impact on their profits, one must wonder why exactly they’re focusing so much on this law.
The principle of the thing, that’s what this is all about. Other countries have started looking at what Australia is doing and are considering their options. There has been speculation that Canada and even the EU could follow Australia’s lead, something that the big tech companies want to avoid.
Though Facebook does already pay for some news, such as the commercial deals it has with UK media companies, it wants to call the shots.
Facebook’s executives do not want governments stepping in and telling them they have to pay for news. As such the company has to show that there are consequences for governments if they want to take action against Big Tech.
Of course, that could backfire spectacularly, they may have big guns in the Biden Administration but if they keep hot-footing it like they did with Australia and threaten to switch off news on their platform, they will face pushback. After what happened with the 2016 US election, that may not be a can of worms, the company wants open.