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Facebook’s news blockade in Australia: A ban with global implications

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Sharing is caring, Australian government says. Facebook disagrees.

The media world is watching Australia. Landmark media legislation would force Google and Facebook to pay for content displayed on their platforms. Google already struck deals with several publishers. Meanwhile, Facebook issued a ban on Australian news outlets, the weather bureau, police agencies and health departments providing crucial COVID-19 information.  

The proposed law – set to enter into force this week –  came from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. If passed, it could have global consequences for tech firms and how we access news online. 

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg сlaimed that the proposed media law is vital for independent journalism. “As the technology has developed and as the power, the wealth, the influence of these digital platforms, namely Google and Facebook, has grown, our regulatory framework has not kept up,” Frydenberg said. 

Google has already moved to strike deals with publishers. It signed $30m annual agreements with Nine Entertainment and Seven West Media earlier in the week. This covers such outlets as Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review.

The tech giant also inked a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for featuring content in its News Showcase. The deal has been criticized as undermining industry solidarity and entrenching the powerful position of Google. 

“It sets a terrible precedent for the net. It gives Google yet more power over news,” tweeted Jeff Jarvis, professor at the City University of New York school of journalism.

Australia faces Facebook news ban

Facebook went the other way, pulling the plug news content. ‘The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,’ said William Easton, the Managing Director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand.

According to a Facebook statement, the media and users are not allowed to post links to news and view local and international news on social networks.

“What the proposed law introduced in Australia fails to recognize is the fundamental nature of the relationship between our platform and publishers. Contrary to what some have suggested, Facebook does not steal news content. Publishers choose to share their stories on Facebook,” the statement read. 

The move sparked a social backlash, particularly around concerns about getting important civic/ government information to audiences:

Others have pointed to the fact that Facebook didn’t really want news in the first place. After all, the platform was initially created to rank the hotness of students. It was never designed for sharing important public information. Thus, it was wrong to expect the platform to have civic responsibilities.

The global regulator vs. tech giant battle

Tech giants have faced growing challenges from regulators around the globe. Indeed, experts view the Facebook ban on news publishers in Australia as part of a bigger story.

“I think Google and Facebook are seriously worried that other countries will join in Australia’s effort,” said Johan Lidberg, a professor of media at Monash University in Melbourne. “This could eventually cause substantial revenue losses globally and serious loss of control, exemplified by the algorithm issue.”

All this is likely to fuel growing demands to break up Facebook. In January New York Attorney General Letitia James informed she’s considering a breakup of the tech giant as “Facebook’s monopoly hurts consumers, it hurts the marketplace, it hurts advertisers,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Facebook has faced both pressure over content regulation and a potential digital tax.

These multiple challenges herald growing challenges to the tech titans. This “death by a thousand regulatory cuts” has led some to forecast an end to the monopolies.

This is not the first time tech giants have sparred with publishers. In 2014 Google News shut down its Spanish service over snippets and links published online. The law stipulated that those publishers whose headlines or snippets of articles appeared in news aggregators like Google News could charge them for the privilege.

Studies show that mostly smaller publishers suffered from the ban then.

By Komanytska

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.