Facebook flicks switch back on for Australian news after striking Government deal

Further amendments are being made to the News Media Bargaining Code by the Australian Government which have resulted in Facebook agreeing to turn Australian news back on

Days after flicking the off switch on Australian news content across its platform, Facebook will reinstate such content in coming days following Federal Government amendments to the News Media Bargaining Code.

The social media giant confirmed the decision via a blog post penned by A/NZ managing director, Will Easton, this afternoon. The decision comes five days after Facebook announced it would restrict the posting and sharing of Australian news content in retaliation for the Australian Government’s decision to endorse the News Media Bargaining Code.

“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to reach an agreement with the Australian government and appreciate the constructive discussions we’ve had with Treasurer Frydenberg and Minister Fletcher over the past week,” the Easton post read.

“We have consistently supported a framework that would encourage innovation and collaboration between online platforms and publishers. After further discussions, we are satisfied the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognise the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.

“As a result of these changes, we can now work to further our investment in public interest journalism and restore news on Facebook for Australians in the coming days.”

The decision comes after reaching agreement on several amendments to the News Media Bargaining Code. One of the most significant is a clause under the Code which must take into account whether a digital platform has made “a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with new media businesses”.

In a joint release issued by Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, the pair confirmed digital platforms will also now be notified of the Government’s intention to designate prior to any final decision and with at least one month’s notice. The Code will also make it clear non-differentiation provisions will not be triggered because commercial agreements resulted in different remuneration amounts or commercial outcomes that arose in the course of usual business practices.

Final offer arbitration has also been emphasised as a last resort where commercial deals cannot be reached by requiring mediation, in good faith, to occur prior to arbitration for no longer than two months.

“Importantly, the amendments will strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers in obtaining appropriate remuneration for the use of their content by the digital platforms,” the joint Frydenberg – Fletcher statement read. “The Explanatory Memorandum will confirm that the Code only applies to the extent a digital platform is making covered news content available through those services.

“These amendments also add further impetus for parties to engage in commercial negotiations outside the Code - a central feature of the framework that the Government is putting in place to foster more sustainable public interest journalism in Australia.”

As Facebook VP of global news partnerships, Campbell Brown put it, the changes will see Facebook retain the ability to decide if news appears on its platform so it’s not automatically subject to forced negotiations.

“After further discussions with the Australian government, we have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers,” Brown 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. It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook.”

One of Facebook’s proposed vehicles for doing this is the Facebook Journalism Project, launched four years ago. The initiative sees the organisation paying publishers for access to more of their content appearing on Facebook News, a product rolling out across several countries globally. Campbell also flagged a new focus area of the Facebook Journalism Project to support independent journalism.

The News Media Bargaining Code was endorsed by the Australian Senate in February and was designed to ensure Google and Facebook paid news media organisations for showing organic search links and excerpts of content from their websites. Under the Code, the digital giants were also to be subject to mandatory arbitration if commercial deals couldn’t be reached. Provisions are also listed around sharing algorithmic changes that potentially impact the way news media content is accessible and navigable through these platforms.  

Despite amendments along the way, the Code continued to be branded by Google and Facebook as “unworkable”, and saw Google threaten to remove its search services from Australia entirely should it be adopted. Back in August, Facebook also said it would consider removing news entirely from its service if the Code were to be adopted.  

Despite these, the Australian Senate endorsed the News Media Bargaining Code in February.

Commenting on the latest Facebook decision, a Nine spokesperson said the ASX-listed company was pleased to see discussions continuing. 

“We are pleased the Government have found a compromise on the Digital Code legislation to move Facebook back into the negotiations with Australian media organisations. We look forward to constructive discussions resuming," the spokesperson said.

Seven is Facebook's first News sign-up

Shortly after the announcement was made, Seven West Media confirmed it had struck a partnership with Facebook to supply news content under a new licencing arrangement. Details have not yet been confirmed.

The LOI is subject to signing a long-form agreement between the two companies and is expected to be executed over the following 60 days. SWM also signed an agreement with Google on 15 February for its Google Showcase offering, its alternative solution to paying publishers for appearing in organic search results.

“The establishment of this new partnership with Facebook is a significant move for our business and reflects the value of our original news content across our successful metropolitan and regional broadcast, digital and print properties," SWM chairman, Kerry Stokes, said. He thanked the Government and ACCC for their efforts to make such negotiations possible.

SWM managing director and CEO, James Warburton, said the two agreements are a significant step forward for Australian news media. 

“Like our new, market-leading partnership with Google, our agreement with Facebook is an important part of the strategy to transform our company and build Australia’s leading news and entertainment content business," he said. “Both agreements are a significant step forward for Australian news media and are a clear acknowledgement by all parties of the value and importance of original news content.”

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