Facebook Australia – No news is good news

Why did the news suddenly stop on Facebook in Australia?

Facebook Australia – No news is good news

Why did the news suddenly stop on Facebook?

On 18th February 2021 Australian Facebook users awoke to find that they are unable to view or share any local or international news on Facebook.

Any content designated by Facebook as ‘news’ was blocked.

Why did the news suddenly stop on Facebook?

For years Facebook and Google have eaten into the advertising revenue of traditional media. For every $100 spent on online advertising $53 goes to Google, $28 to Facebook and then a paltry $19 is distributed amongst ‘everyone else’.[1]

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which aims to keep markets competitive, conducted an inquiry that led to the obvious conclusion that there was an imbalance of power between Facebook and Google and the traditional media platforms, so much so that the viability of traditional media was threatened, suggesting that the tech giants should pay for the media content that they use.

The Australian Federal parliament, following the recommendations of the ACCC, and no doubt influenced by the fervent lobbying of News Corp, is set to pass a landmark law that makes Google and Facebook pay news publishers for their content.

The impact of this power imbalance may have gone unnoticed by the general public who have become more and more reliant on the internet behemoths for their daily news.

Why should big tech pay news publishers for their content?

Most of the Australian population use Google and Facebook as gateways to the Internet and news companies have no choice but to distribute their publications on these platforms. Publishers are benefitted by readers being sent back to their news websites. But Facebook and Google also need news, since their users would not find the digital platforms as desirable if no news feeds appeared in their search results. Google and Facebook monetise their audiences by selling advertising for the traffic that news brings and also collecting data on readers which assists in targeting the advertising they are paid for. Although big tech and traditional media need each other, big tech commands the dominant market share in advertising revenue and traditional media have become dependent upon big tech for their dwindling piece of that revenue.

To many observers of the modern media, the quality of journalism has been sacrificed to the need for internet clicks to make a news outlet relevant to their advertisers and associated funding. In many quarters news that lacks emotional salience has taken second place to clickbait journalism. This influence is pernicious and has driven a “race to the bottom” in journalism standards “because the funding is collapsing for quality journalism.”[2]

Google and Facebook react to the proposed law

The law will provide a bargaining framework for news publishers to get fair deals to be paid for their content. In what the government originally proposed it had a hefty sting that if Google and Facebook did not bargain with the news outlets fairly (or ‘in good faith’), then each could be fined $10 million or the equivalent of 10% of their annual Australian revenue and be subject of a compulsory arbitration that would impose a deal upon them.

This did not go down well with either Google or Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, immediately threatened that it would ban Australian Facebook users from viewing any Australian or overseas media on Facebook.

Google threatened to remove its search functions from Australia and ran a campaign saying it was unfair. Google’s Australian managing director Mel Silva – speaking to a Senate inquiry into the code – contended that “unrestricted linking between websites is fundamental to search” and that the law posed an “unmanageable financial and operational risk”.[3]

The legislation never required payment per link or click, as suggested by Silva, it simply required payment of a fair and reasonable amount for use of news content by reaching an agreement with the creators of the content.

Facebook and Google profit from the media content shared on their sites as it is the sharing of such content that keeps users engaged with their platform and the advertisers pay for that engagement.

The posturings by big tech illustrate clearly why there is a need for Government to stand up to the bullying and manoeuvring of Google and Facebook. In mid-February 2021 the Australian Government had not backed down.

With the threats by Google of cutting off Australian users, Microsoft – which has its own search engine ‘Bing’ – stepped in and said if Google was to withdraw from Australia it was ready to step into the gap with its own search engine, and be a willing participant in the new media code. It offered Bing as an alternative, ready to pay for the content and made a further promise to invest in the platform to improve it.

Since Bing offers a competitive alternative to Google, Google caved in on the hard line it was grandstanding and bullying with. Google sought to enter contracts with various news outlets, including paying Channel 7 a rumoured $30 million and Channel 9 reportedly far more.[4] More will follow. However, Google did so ahead of the new law being passed, in a bid no doubt to avoid having the power of negotiating taken out of its hands. However, the threat of external arbitration gave the media publishers leverage to negotiate deals that were far beyond what would have been afforded them without that looming threat.[5] In fact, without Government intervention it is assumed that Google would have continued to pay zero for the content it uses on its news sites.

Facebook bans the news

However, Facebook has no real competition from other social media platforms and has been, up to now, an unfettered market force. On Thursday 18th of February 2021 Facebook, under direction of its founder Mark Zuckerberg, followed through on its threat banning Australian users from national and international media content.

In the place of news content on all sites was a message “No posts yet”.

In this bullying stance it was Facebook which determined what was to be ‘designated’ as news content. This meant that it took a hatchet to Facebook sites that an ordinary user might be surprised to find are ‘news’.

The ban was executed in a punitive manner, Facebook taking a broad sweep with pages of charities, businesses and government departments wiped alongside the media news sites. In the initial sweep some sites that serve critical community need were also wiped, such as state emergency Fire and Rescue sites.

Facebook's vice-president of public policy for the Asia-Pacific region, Simon Milner, has said he was "sorry for the mistakes we made in some of the implementation" of the ban and that Facebook would restore some of the sites inadvertently removed, but was resolute that for some pages the ban would continue since, according to Facebook, “it's really difficult in that the law isn't clear and therefore there may be some pages that were clearly not news but actually under the law they might be," he said.[6]

What this reasoning offers is an obfuscation of what was really going on. Facebook took a broad sweep to punish those who dare stand up to it by making it clear that the Australian consumer will pay for its Government’s insubordination. How dare anyone challenge Facebook’s business model!

Millner was making the feeble excuse that it wasn’t Facebook’s fault but the Government’s for making it pay for ‘news’ and well, it couldn’t help the broad scale of the ban because Facebook didn’t know what ‘news’ was! The constructed argument was that it’s the Governments fault because the definition of news is broad, so if Facebook decides it might fall within that definition, well it will ban it.

In other words, ‘our hands are tied’ because the Australian Government has said we have to pay for media we publish and if a site might publish anything that we consider ‘news’, well we will ban it.

On a stretch this could appear reasonable. But only if you accept the premise that it’s about each and every shared link. However, it never was about every link to an article placed on its sites, it was about paying fairly for content it has monetised for a considerable time. It is obvious to the observer what is ‘news’ and what is not and equally the source of that content – mainly the main media publications. A small agreement to pay a few million dollars for media content would not even touch the sides of Facebook’s multibillion dollar platform.

Facebook's revenue was 86 billion US dollars in 2020.[7]

The upshot of Facebook’s stance is that any publication of any ‘news’ type articles made any Facebook page a target.

Take for instance the director of a funeral business who discovered that his business’ Facebook page had been cut off. He described “two hours down a rabbit hole of trying to find somewhere on Facebook’s website where you can actually contact them”, and then attempting to explain that he was not in the media business but in the funeral business. He received the perverse and oppressive response that “yes, but you published stories”.[8]

Given that Facebook has refined its search engines to identify and remove banned content it has deemed to violate new rules it progressively has added to over recent weeks – such as anything suggesting that the USA 2020 election was rigged or biased, Trump supporters and those who dare to question the efficacy, safety or otherwise wisdom of COVID-19 ‘vaccines’, treatments or preventive measures – it is worth asking how it can justify removing entire Facebook pages rather than using its obviously refined search capacities to simply remove any articles it considers ‘news’. But that would not serve the aim of the threat of cutting off the sharing of any news content and the leveraging of its position to push the Australian Government to capitulate.

What is clear is that since Facebook has no obvious competitor that can take its place, it used outright bullying tactics to force the Australian government to back down.

Perhaps making clear that we have become too reliant on Facebook, no one was happy: views of Australian media declined, small businesses caught up in the sting had their advertising platforms compromised, not to mention the millions of Australians who look to Facebook for their daily consumption of news or consumer goods. The Government was under pressure.

The Australian Government caves in to Facebook

On the 23rd February 2021, the Australian Government caved in to Facebook’s bullying with some adjustments to the original regime which are likely to impact upon how effective it will be going forward.

The deal preserves agreements made before the regime comes into effect.

The threat of immediate arbitration where a deal would be forced upon big tech has been removed, with Facebook and other platforms subject to the code being given warning notices with a month to comply and a couple of months of mediation prior to arbitration, and all this only after the government has looked at commercial deals done before the code applied.

The compromise also means that the new regime will not apply to Facebook if it can show that it has entered enough deals with some media outlets to pay them for their content, because the government is obliged to take into account whether the tech giant has “made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through commercial agreements with local media companies.”[9] Questioning the commercial value of the deals appears to be off limits since the compromise specifically excludes comparison of the amounts paid between different media groups.

What do these changes mean? Is the regime now a toothless tiger? Certainly, the strong-arm tactics of Facebook were a warning to the rest of the world against pursuing any such regulation of the tech giants.

It appears that the amounts that Facebook will pay for the use of media content will be largely unfettered; the compromise brokered suggests the commercial deals made cannot be questioned merely because more is paid to one party than another – or as Facebook’s Australian managing director, Will Easton put it, the new compromise allows “commercial deals that recognise the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”[10]

Business as usual for Facebook?

More telling is that Facebook has not backed down from its strong-arm position at all. Although news media content has been restored for now, Facebook has indicated that if the Government were to decide to apply the code to Facebook in the future, the company would again remove news content. Campbell Brown, the company’s global VP for partnerships stated: “Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.”[11]

In other words, reading behind the lines, Facebook is saying that it will continue to operate as per usual and will not be subjected to prescription of its commercial dealings by the Government’s intended regime. It will retain the power to do what it wants by retaining the looming threat of again removing the news.

No doubt the Government’s interests have hit paydirt in having the Australian news media owing them a few favours, and this appears to already be bearing fruit with 7’s boss, Kerry Stokes lavishing praise upon Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, his treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Rod Sims, the Chairman of the ACCC – no doubt buoyed by the $30 million paycheck for 7 Media from Google, with agreements reported to also be in negotiations with Facebook in the coming weeks. And is that the point here?

There has been an unfettered growing power of big tech to manipulate what the public has access to as far as news content goes. The Australian Government is taking on the big tech giants at a time when the unprecedented power of Facebook, Google and Twitter has become blindingly obvious – now evident from the USA experience where conservative voices and news that favour the conservative stance have been silenced on Facebook and Twitter. After years of lobbying from traditional media, the Australian Government – a Liberal Party government (think USA republican or British conservative) – know they will need allies within the Media if they are to survive the trend of the big tech giants drowning out the voices they do not approve of.

Can you live without Facebook?

The story of how Facebook silenced the news for a few days and its exhibition of its unfettered power to change the direction of Government regulation is prescient of the control it exerts over all our lives.

We might applaud the Government for taking a stand against Big Tech, but the compromise reached at the end demonstrates that Government is not going to be the vehicle for changing the social media landscape, where our lives are being unknowingly shaped by the news content that Facebook and Google desire us to receive.

It is the people that can make Facebook irrelevant by changing their use of it. It is demand that creates the supply: our demand for Facebook content has made it the platform it is today.

Facebook has become too prominent in life in so many areas of engagement. It is a noxious 'platform' erroneously suggesting human interaction and 'friendship'. But it has been used to manipulate and spy on us. One's movements, likes, preferences and friends are catalogued to create algorithms to target the unwary. It has been used to bully, intimidate and spread malice like no other platform. It should be looked at as a great social experiment that has perniciously grown to now make no secret of silencing debate on topics it determines to be ‘misinformation’.

It is a power we, the people, have given it. It now openly says it is censoring content and we have not packed our bags and got out of there! When truth is a commodity that is optional, we should all be saying no and departing.


References:

  • [1]

    Meade, A (2021, February 16). Google and Facebook: the landmark Australian law that will make them pay for news content. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/feb/16/google-and-facebook-the-landmark-australian-law-that-will-make-them-pay-for-news-content

  • [2]

    Leser, D. (2012, June 10). Media Ethics, with Joanne Shoebridge and George Negus, ABC North Coast Radio. Retrieved from https://davidleser.wordpress.com/author/davidleser/

  • [3]

    Mirage (2021, January 22). Why Google might turn search off in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.miragenews.com/why-google-might-turn-off-search-function-in-australia/

  • [4]

    Knight, E. (2021, February 17). Payday: How Australia tamed the Google gorilla. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/payday-how-australia-tamed-the-google-gorilla-20210217-p573dx.html

  • [5]

    Knight, E. (2021, February 17). Payday: How Australia tamed the Google gorilla. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/payday-how-australia-tamed-the-google-gorilla-20210217-p573dx.html

  • [6]

    ABC News (2012, February 18) Simon Milner defends Facebook actions. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-18/simon-milner,-vice-president,-public-policy/13169614?nw=0

  • [7]

    Tankovska, H. (2021, February 5). Facebook's revenue and net income from 2007 to 2020. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/277229/facebooks-annual-revenue-and-net-income/

  • [8]

    Taylor, J., McGowan, M. and Bland, A. (2021, February 20). ‘Misinformation runs rampant as Facebook says it may take a week before it unblocks some pages. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/feb/19/misinformation-runs-rampant-as-facebook-says-it-may-take-a-week-before-it-unblocks-some-pages

  • [9]

    Mason, M. and Kehoe, J. (2021, February 24). Seven first to sign deal as Facebook ‘refriends’ Australia. The Financial Review. Retrieved from https://www.afr.com/technology/facebook-to-restore-news-in-new-deal-with-government-20210223-p5753s

  • [10]

    Meade, A. Taylor, J. and Hurst, D. (2021, February 23). Facebook reverses Australia news ban after government makes media code amendments. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/feb/23/facebook-reverses-australia-news-ban-after-government-makes-media-code-amendments

  • [11]

    Meade, A. Taylor, J. and Hurst, D. (2021). As above.


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