Some commentators reckon Facebook has called Australia’s bluff. They may be about to discover that Australia isn’t bluffing.
The platform’s own irresponsible and chaotic implementation of its Australian news “ban” appears to have rallied the country – citizens and politicians from across the aisles – and governments from around the world, to support the Australian government’s resolve.
As a former chief executive of Facebook in Australia and New Zealand, Stephen Scheeler, wrote in the Nine newspapers, the company has taken an enormous gamble, betting that “by taking an aggressive hard line with a middle power, such as Australia, a tough message will be sent to the rest of the world to back off on regulation.”
But, as he says, there is an alternative scenario. “When you pull a government’s pants down in front of the world, you leave it little option but to dig in. When you vandalise 13 million citizens’ news feeds as a bargaining chip, you raise the stakes … So witnessing a standoff between Australia and Facebook could be the catalyst for genuine global reform. It could be that future historians of the internet come to see this decision as the moment the world sat up and started to take serious action on making Big Tech accountable to society.”
So far, that second scenario is playing out.
It’s hard to think of a better way for a platform to anger a nation and destroy what’s left of its own reputation than to block health and hospital sites in a pandemic, emergency service sites in a state that recently battled bushfires and the sites of innumerable welfare groups, charities and community organisations, all in a bid to avoid making payments under a new media bargaining code that aims to address the power imbalance between media companies and the big tech platforms.
It’s hard to think of how to look more like an arrogant international monopoly not taking a country and its proposed laws seriously than to implement a ban with no warning and in such a ham-fisted way that a radio station could get its page back up by listing itself as a gift shop and users could still post news articles if they were posted as a link to a tweet. This is a company so sure of its capacity to bully that it was prepared to push the big “destroy news in Australia” button apparently without spending even a moment thinking through the consequences.
It didn’t take long for comparisons to be made about how easy it had been for Facebook to shut down real, factual news and how difficult it had claimed the task of shutting down “fake” news and misinformation, or even shutting off the livestream of a massacre, or for questions to be asked about how a company that is supposed to be all about “connecting the world” could so blithely disconnect factual news from an entire nation, leaving the top-performing links to news-adjacent comedy sites and satire.
Facebook’s response, that the breadth of its ban was due to the definition of news in the proposed code, makes no sense since the code is not yet law, and the company immediately began reversing some of the blocks as they were publicised by outraged users.
So far it has succeeded in strengthening the government’s resolve. The prime minister says, pointedly, that threats are not a good way to deal with his government.
Google, the other media giant that faced being forced into negotiation and arbitration with news companies under the code, found a workaround.
In order to avoid setting the legal precedent of paying for news appearing in search, it has done deals of similar magnitude with Australian media companies large and small for stories to appear in its Showcase service. The government has achieved its aim of getting the platform to pay the news companies, and Google has avoided the precedent. The government retains the ability to activate the letter of the law and force payment for news appearing in search at any time in the future, as a means of ensuring the voluntary deals are not eroded over time, or denied to smaller and mid-sized publishers once the needs of the big end of town are met.
It is true that this arrangement, arrived at via the power of competition law, to even up the playing field between news companies and the powerful monopoly platforms that they cannot avoid doing business with, does not address the problem of concentration of media ownership in Australia.
But even if you hold deep concerns about that issue, as I do (it was one of the reasons we established Guardian Australia eight years ago) and even if you believe firmly that the government should act to increase media diversity, as I also do, it doesn’t take too much thought to understand the danger of setting a precedent where a government uses competition law to decide which individual publishers it wants to favour and which it does not.
News Corp’s lobbying probably did help convince the Australian government to act on the competition regulator’s recommendations, and News Corp – as the dominant news publisher in the country – will reap substantial benefits from the code applied proportionately across the Australian publishing landscape. That is an uncomfortable reality that has caused some commentators to make the bizarre suggestion that other Australian publishers should render themselves less competitive by rejecting Google’s offers, a strange idea that could only exacerbate the problem.
Writing on Medium and on the small Australian website Crikey, which was one of the very first Australian publishers to sign a Showcase deal with Google, US academic Jeff Jarvis argues Guardian Australia “fell in league with the devil [News Corp]” by seeking to negotiate exactly the same kind of agreement with Google as the company publishing him and most other media companies in Australia. He also claims Google’s payments will not benefit journalism. He provides no evidence for this assertion, but if he’s right it would be uncovered by the review to be conducted by Treasury at the end of the first year of the code’s operation. Under Guardian Australia’s business model (we have no shareholders and operate solely to provide journalism) there’s actually nothing else to spend it on.
As for Facebook, it now faces two choices. It could do deals in a similar way to Google, either voluntarily or through the formal negotiation and arbitration processes under the law, or it could stay out of Australia.
Facebook argues that journalism has a “minimal” upside for its business, that only about 4% of the content its users see is on their news feed. Under the logic of the code, that means it could expect to make much smaller payments than those being made by Google.
A continuing Facebook news ban does raise concerns, especially for small community news hubs, First Nations news services, or youth oriented or regional news services – the kinds of sites highly dependent on Facebook. But it also highlights the dangers for them of being too reliant on a third party that is prepared to pull the plug overnight, without warning. Some of those organisations are already thinking about how they go back to basics and diversify the way they distribute their work. Should Facebook stay out, there’s a strong argument for the government to help them.
Facebook’s gamble is that Australia won’t be able to live without it. Imagine the consequences if we prove that we can.