Facebook threatens to block Australians from sharing news in battle over landmark media law

Digital giant says it will stop users of Facebook and Instagram sharing local and international news if new law proposed by competition watchdog is approved

Facebook will block Australians from sharing news if a landmark plan to make digital platforms pay for news content becomes law, the digital giant has warned.

The sharing of personal content between family and friends will not be affected and neither will the sharing of news by Facebook users outside of Australia, the social network said.

The mandatory news code has been backed by all the major media companies including News Corp Australia, Nine Entertainment and Guardian Australia, as a way to offset the damage caused by the loss of advertising revenue to Facebook and Google.

“Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram,” the managing director of Facebook Australia & New Zealand Will Easton said in a blog post on Tuesday.

“This is not our first choice – it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the government would continue with the legislation and did not respond to “coercion or heavy-handed threats”.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Rod Sims said Facebook’s threat was ill-timed and misconceived.

“The draft media bargaining code aims to ensure Australian news businesses, including independent, community and regional media, can get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google,” Sims said.

“Facebook already pays some media for news content. The code simply aims to bring fairness and transparency to Facebook and Google’s relationships with Australian news media businesses.

“We note that according to the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report, 39% of Australians use Facebook for general news, and 49% use Facebook for news about COVID-19.

“As the ACCC and the Government work to finalise the draft legislation, we hope all parties will engage in constructive discussions.”

Tuesday’s statement marked the company’s first comment since Google also took an aggressive approach to the looming legislation, although the search giant has stopped short of saying it would block search functions in Australia.

The director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, Peter Lewis, said Facebook is prepared to remove trusted journalism from its site but will allow disinformation and conspiracy theories to flourish.

“As a big advertising company, Facebook would do well to realise its success is only as strong as its network of users,” Lewis said.

“Bullying their elected representatives seems a strange way to build long-term trust.

The announcement blindsided Australian media following a long silence from Facebook in Australia. Facebook chose to brief American journalists ahead of the release of the news about the ban, while ignoring Australian media.

In case you didn't know who the real audience is for Facebook's lobbying against the news media bargaining code, the New York Times got the drop on its new threat to bar Australians from sharing local and international news. Not even the NYT's local team. https://t.co/QBFre5oXuM

— Ariel Bogle (@arielbogle) September 1, 2020

Sources said the targeting of the US media indicated Facebook’s main concern was that the mandatory code set an “international precedent”.

Nine Entertainment, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, said Facebook’s “strange” response had demonstrated its use of its monopoly power “while failing to recognise the importance of reliable news content to balance the fake news that proliferates on their platform”.

“We are ready to engage and hope to come to a constructive outcome with Facebook which will work for both of us and importantly the Australian community,” a Nine spokeswoman said.

They are so afraid of paying for news content that they’re prepared to damage their own business to avoid it.

One third of Australians get their news from Facebook.

If Facebook pulls news they will lose all that data harvesting, all that eyeball time. https://t.co/we0aF2UxU1

— Belinda Barnet (@manjusrii) September 1, 2020

Facebook said the competition regulator “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet” and will damage the media companies it is trying to protect with the bargaining code which would see Google and Facebook sharing some of the revenue they get from advertising using news content.

“When crafting this new legislation, the commission overseeing the process ignored important facts, most critically the relationship between the news media and social media and which one benefits most from the other.”

Easton denied the ACCC’s claim that the digital giants make money from news, saying “the reverse is true” in the case of Facebook.

He said in the first five months of 2020 Facebook sent two billion clicks from Facebook’s News Feed back to Australian news websites “at no charge”, traffic that was worth an estimated $200m to Australian publishers.

In the incendiary post Facebook branded the scheme devised by the ACCC as one which allowed publishers to “charge us for as much content as they want at a price with no clear limits”. The statement had some support, including from billionaire tech mogul Mike Cannon-Brookes who said media would be the loser not Facebook.

The only logical move for Facebook to make. News doesn't make it much $ I'd assume. UGC is their business. No shortage of content. Media orgs will lose out of this in general. https://t.co/Zvt7sWXE9P

— Mike Cannon-Brookes 👨🏼‍💻🧢 (@mcannonbrookes) September 1, 2020

In a separate post, the vice president of global news partnerships for Facebook, Campbell Brown, said the company’s commitment to journalism had not changed and listed the projects Facebook had launched globally.

“And we hope to once again count Australian news publishers among our partners in the future,” Brown said.

Brown said the company was “disappointed” by the outcome in Australia which did not produce regulation which helped the relationships between technology companies and news organisations but one which hindered it.

Facebook told users it was updating its terms of reference next month, apparently to include the ban on Australians sharing news. The new line in the terms is: “We also can remove or restrict access to your content, services or information if we determine that doing so is reasonably necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook”.

The minister for communications Paul Fletcher said Facebook’s statement was a reminder that the tech giants had a history of making heavy-handed threats and the government remained committed to the mandatory code.

The commercial TV lobby group accused Facebook of bullying.

“What we’re seeing today is a global monopoly that will say and do anything to avoid making a fair payment for news content, Free TV Australia chief executive Bridget Fair said: “Australian Facebook users are being held to ransom as a tactic to intimidate the Australian Government into backing down on this issue.”


Amanda Meade

The GuardianTramp

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