In Australia, Google makes publisher deals, Facebook walks

Region Media responds to Facebook's ban on local news

In response to Australia's forthcoming news media bargaining code, Facebook made a decision to take the nuclear option.

Several critical government agencies - tasked with issuing emergency Covid-19, bushfire, flood and cyclone advice - were initially caught up in the news ban before Facebook began restoring them.

Facebook's algorithmic ambush switched off the main news source for nearly one in five Australians.

"[As] the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content", the statement continued, "we have taken a broad definition".

Without reliable news from Australian media companies on Australian Facebook pages, the company will have to ramp up checks on dubious material that hasn't been blocked, said Johan Lidberg, an associate professor at Melbourne's Monash University who specializes in media and journalism.

The company announced last night that Australians can no longer view or share news on the platform because of proposed laws that would make digital giants pay for journalism.

Facebook has followed through on its threat to ban users from sharing news on its platform in Australia, in response to proposed media laws in the country that the company claims "fundamentally misunderstand" its relationship with publishers who share news content.

It also means that people elsewhere in the world can not view or share Australian news content on Facebook.

Last month Google threatened to pull its search engine from Australia if the law went into effect.

And across the last few months that plan, now called the News Media Bargaining Code, has been taking shape with a mixed bag of local and worldwide criticism and support.

Facebook's rush to censor may even encourage a proportion of its users to remember/discover that there's a whole open Internet outside its walled garden - where they can freely access public information without having to log into Facebook's ad-targeting platform (and be stripped of their privacy) first.

Frydenberg said after weekend talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, that he was convinced the platforms "do want to enter into these commercial arrangements".

Under the proposed Australian legislation, platforms would have to negotiate with publishers over access to links to news stories. This would be done by reaching an agreement between Google/Facebook and news publishers. Google now accounts for 51% of all online advertising in Australia while the Australia Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) notes that over 90% of online searches now occur through Google.

Some of the blocked pages were later restored, though even Facebook's own page was briefly taken down.

However Facebook's blunt action has also attracted criticism that it's putting business interests before human rights - given it's shuttering users' ability to find what might be vital information, such as from hospitals and government departments, in the middle of a pandemic. "With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter", stated Facebook.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the government would not back down on its legislative agenda because of Facebook's reaction.

Either way, the content blocks have started coming down, and there has already been significant collateral damage from whatever algorithm the Facebook team deployed.

A panel - decided by the negotiating parties or the media watchdog - would hear offers and make a decision on payment for news content.

"The value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favour of the publishers", it wrote, saying its platform generated 5.1 billion referrals to Australian publishers.

"It's a massive step forward we have seen this week", Frydenberg said of the Google deals.

"What today's events do confirm for all Australians is the huge market power of these media digital giants", Frydenberg added. A 2020 University of Canberra study found 21pc of Australians use social media as their primary news source and 39pc of the population uses Facebook to receive news.

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