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February 18, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:02am

Facebook blocks news content in Australia to dodge News Media Bargaining Code

By William Turvill

Facebook has blocked publishers and users in Australia from sharing and viewing news in response to the country’s legislative plans to force it to pay for news content.

The social media giant announced the move on Wednesday, hours after Google – the other target of the Media Bargaining law – struck a new cash-for-content deal with News Corp as it seeks to avoid new legislation.

In a blog post, William Easton – Facebook’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand – said: “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.”

According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 39% of Australians say they use Facebook for news, down from 48% in 2015.

Australia PM reacts to Facebook news block

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a Facebook post the platform’s actions were “as arrogant as they were disappointing”.

“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” he said. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”

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Morrison added that Australian Parliament “will not be intimidated” when it votes on the bargaining code and called on Facebook to “constructively work” with Government.

Facebook blocks news

For Australian publishers, Facebook’s restrictions will prevent them from sharing or posting content on their pages. However, Facebook said administrators will still have access to other features on their pages, including page insights and the creator studio. They will also retain access to data tools and CrowdTangle.

The changes mean the social media company will not be launching Facebook News – a cash-for-content arrangement that is already active in the US and UK – in Australia.

Easton said: “We will now prioritise investments to other countries, as part of our plans to invest in new licensing news programs and experiences.”

International users unable to share Australian content

International publishers can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts will not be accessible to Australian audiences.

Australians will not be able to view or share domestic or international news content on the platform. Users from other countries will not be able to view or share Australian news content or content from Australian news pages.

Easton said: “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.”

Emily Bell, the founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, accused Facebook of mischaracterising its relationship with news publishers “on a pretty profound level”.

She tweeted: “Facebook says the Australian government has misunderstood the relationship that the platform has with news. It is a voluntary posting platform full of willing publishers. I would say this mischaracterizes that relationship on a pretty profound level.

“Most publishers feel obliged to be on Facebook . They don’t like the asymmetry of the relationship, they dislike the requirement of going through an intermediary without access to even negligible data. We have five years of non-platform funded research that says this.”

Jason Kint, chief executive of US publishing trade body Digital Content Next, tweeted: “World’s greatest amplifier of disinfo and toxic sludge to your newsfeed is going to block the most trusted news brands in the world from reaching Australians. Why? Because its business model can’t handle anything other than surveillance capitalism. I hope its employees are proud.”

In his blog, Easton sought to point to differences between Google and Facebook. Google Search, he said, 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.”

Last year, he claimed, Facebook generated 5.1bn free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407m (£228m, US$315m).

By contrast, he claimed Facebook gains “minimal” business from news. “News makes up less than 4% of the content people see in their News Feed,” he said.

He claimed the proposed Media Bargaining law “seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for”.

Mail Online slams Facebook’s ‘inflammatory’ news block

But i editor Oly Duff warned of the risks: “In an age of industrialised misinformation, shutting out reporting is a dangerous and regrettable act that could harm a country, its citizens and Facebook’s global standing. Beware the wrong side of history, Mr Zuckerberg.”

A Mail Online spokesperson said: “So much for Facebook’s commitment to free speech.

“We are astonished by this inflammatory move which is a blatant and clumsy attempt to try and intimidate the Australian government into watering down the provisions of the ACCC code.

“We trust Canberra’s politicians stand firm and call Facebook’s bluff by passing the legislation unchanged and enforce it to the letter of the law.”

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “This is really unfortunate and it is always the public, not the media, that ultimately loses out when the delivery of news is blocked in this way.

“The lesson to be learnt is that it is best to strive to reach amicable agreements.

“Here in the UK we have seen Facebook and Google recently reach agreements with UK publishers and news organisations to pay for content under licence.

“No doubt there will be further negotiations on how news providers such as publishers and broadcasters can be properly compensated for their work when it is reproduced on the digital platforms, but while this evolves it is essential the public are not denied access to news and information.”

News Media Association chairman Henry Faure Walker said the sudden ban was a “classic example of a monopoly power being the school yard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves”.

“The recent deals struck between Google in Australia and news publishers are a welcome acknowledgement of the principle that independent journalism has to be paid for,” he said.

“However, Facebook’s actions in Australia demonstrate precisely why we need jurisdictions across the globe, including the UK, to coordinate to deliver robust regulation to create a truly level playing between the tech giants and news publishers.”

‘Deeply clumsy’ execution

The speed of Facebook’s action was criticised as numerous non-news organisations were caught up in it, seeing their pages blocked.

They included the likes of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, local health groups, government and charity pages, satire sites including The Chaser and the Betoota Advocate – and Facebook’s own @Facebook page.

The Conversation, an academic-led news publication, has found itself blocked from posting links on Facebook from anywhere in the world  – even for stories commissioned, written and published by The Conversation UK brand – as it was founded in Australia.

The Conversation UK’s chief executive Chris Waiting tweeted: “It’s a very blunt demonstration of the platform’s power, one they’ve been reluctant to wield in other recent cases, but one they’re fully entitled to make (even if the execution has been rushed and deeply clumsy).”

[Read more: The Conversation chief exec Chris Waiting on how pandemic has boosted readership and revenue]

Picture credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam & Reuters/Dado Ruvic

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