Industry criticises Facebook move to restrict news services across Australia
- 18 February, 2021 10:19
Media organisations and industry commentators have responded scathingly to news Facebook is restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content as a consequence of Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code.
In a blog post attributed to Facebook A/NZ managing director, Will Easton, the social media giant stated it is now restricting Australian publishers from sharing or posting any content as a direct response to the Australian Government’s endorsement of the ACCC-penned News Media Bargaining Code.
The Code was endorsed by the Australian Senate last week and requires Google and Facebook to pay news media organisations for showing organic search links and excerpts of content from their websites. The pair would also be subject to mandatory arbitration if commercial deals cannot be reached. There are also provisions in the Bill 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 has been branded by Google and Facebook as “unworkable” in its current form, 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.
And as of today, Facebook has actioned its threat to restrict Australian news content on its platform.The repercussions were widespread, and have seen not just Australian media sites but the likes of the Bureau of Metereology, government health services, retail sites and not-for-profit organisations hit by the restrictions.
“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Easton stated as he announced Facebook’s decision to restrict Australian news content today.
“It has left us facing a stark choice: Attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”
Easton said the discussion on how US tech giants, Google and Facebook, benefit from news content on their services and how to recompense news media outlets for these content services had failed to distinguish between the differences in platforms.
The decision means people and news organisations in Australia cannot post news links and sharing or viewing Australian and international news content on Facebook. Globally, posting and sharing news links from Australian publishers is also restricted, and while international publishers can continue to share news articles via Facebook, these links and posts will not be viewable to Australian consumers. International audiences also can’t share or view any Australian news content on Facebook.
Facebook said it’s making the restrictions possible via a combination of technologies and said it’s also employing a process to review any content inadvertently removed.
“We understand many will ask why the platforms may respond differently. The answer is because our platforms have fundamentally different relationships with news. Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue,” Easton stated.
“In fact, and as we have made clear to the Australian Government for many months, the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favour of the publishers — which is the reverse of what the legislation would require the arbitrator to assume.”
According to Facebook figures, the platform generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated $407 million. In addition, Facebook reiterated the fact news makes up less than 4 per cent of the content people see in their news feeds.
“Over the last three years, we’ve worked with the Australian Government to find a solution that recognises the realities of how our services work. We’ve long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations,” Easton continued.
“Unfortunately, this legislation does not do that. Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.”
Facebook’s alternative to the Code was to launch Facebook News in Australia, a platform it said would see it increase investments with local publishers.
“However, we were only prepared to do this with the right rules in place,” Easton said. “This legislation sets a precedent where the government decides who enters into these news content agreements, and ultimately, how much the party that already receives value from the free service gets paid. We will now prioritise investments to other countries, as part of our plans to invest in new licensing news programs and experiences.”
Industry criticises decision
Commenting on Facebook’s decision, a Nine spokesperson said it was disappointed and stressed no one will win from this course.
“It is unfortunate Facebook have taken this position and it will indeed inhibit us from sharing our quality news and information with Australians. Nobody benefits from this decision as Facebook will now be a platform for misinformation to rapidly spread without balance,” the spokespersons said. “This action proves again their monopoly position and unreasonable behaviour.”
Nine also noted Facebook’s decision today doesn’t mean it does not have to abide by the Federal Government’s proposed code.
“Value has already been transferred and Facebook has benefited from our content for many years. We should be able to access their monopoly platform and have the right to monetise our content as a result,” the spokesperson continued.
“We have been negotiating with Facebook in good faith and we remain willing to do a deal with them that provides a mutually beneficial outcome and ensures quality information is available to all Australians on their platform.”
Verizon Media A/NZ director of content, Simon Wheeler, joined the chorus of media brands disappointed in Facebook's decision.
"We’re disappointed Facebook has felt the need to take this drastic action, which is going to have a tangible effect on Australian publishers and will adversely impact the large number of Australians who use their news feed to discover news stories," he said. "Removing premium and trusted content poses further challenges for Facebook in providing a brand-safe and premium environment."
Similarly, SCA CEO, Grant Blackley, said the radio network was surprised at the announcement, as well as the general lack of engagement on the decision.
“We expect Facebook and their users will be poorer given this outcome," he said.
“Moving forward, we expect that Facebook will continue to encourage publishers like ourselves to entertain audiences through their platform with premium video and audio assets."
Greens spokesperson for media and communications, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has been part of the senate committee debating the News Media Bargaining Code, was also scathing of Facebook’s decision.
“Facebook has proved this morning they have become far too big, reinforcing the need to regulate this corporate bully,” she said in a statement. “Instead of coming to the negotiating table in good faith and to pay the journalists that create their content, they pulled a major component of their service.”
Senator Hanson-Young also criticised the move in the wake of the rise of fake news and its distribution through such platforms as Facebook.
“Facebook constantly makes excuses for why it allows fake news to be spread on their platform yet overnight has blocked real news,” she stated. “The platform profits off the spread of hate speech, dangerous conspiracy theories and fake news and has now restricted any possibility of balancing that with the truth.
“Facebook needs to grow up. Australia’s democracy isn’t a college dorm room and playing with public interest journalism isn’t a game.
“Facebook has just confirmed it really is just FakeBook.”
Reset Australia executive director, Chris Cooper, took a similar line, arguing the decision to pull Australian news media content from the social media platform showed disregard for the spread of misinformation.
“Facebook blocking news in the middle of a pandemic, when accurate information is a key plank of the public health response really tells you all you need know about how much Zuckerberg cares about Australian society and cohesion,” claimed Cooper. "Throughout the News Media Bargaining Code process, big tech has dismissed 'news' as nothing more than a line item on a balance sheet.
“Facebook is telling Australians that rather than participate meaningfully in regulatory efforts, it would prefer to operate a platform in which real news has been abandoned or de-prioritised, leaving misinformation to fill the void.
“The difference between information and misinformation and the value of the news to the functioning of democracy doesn’t matter to Facebook. Regulation is an inconvenient impost on their immediate profits - and the hostility of their response overwhelmingly confirms regulation is needed.”
Monash University associate professor, Carsten Rudolph, raised the unintended consequences of Facebook's decision as ushering in the debate on the very role digital platforms play in society.
“Content blocking of this nature can result in more unnecessary outlets being blocked, rather than less. This is already occurring with the likes of emergency services and weather forecasts being blocked. We’ve also seen that satirical sites, such as The Betoota Advocate, have also been blocked from using their Facebook page," he commented.
“Another example we’ve seen as a result of Facebook’s decision overnight is that The First Nations media organisation, Bumma Bippera Media 987 FM, also cannot reach its audience via its Facebook page.
“This issue raises some general questions about what role digital platforms play in our society. We need to be clear they are commercial entities relying on a business model, whilst using exploitative data mining tactics.
For Rudolph, digital platforms benefit from a variety of creators and questioned why discussions were across the value given across the ecosystem.
"It is unclear why there is a law specifically focusing on news providers, while the general issue of digital platforms is exploiting creators without adequate compensation. Using peoples' data without adequate compensation has not been approached by legislation in a suitable way," he added.
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