On Friday 19th February, Australians awoke to find that something was a little off about their Facebook feeds. Not only were they unable to share news from local or international outlets on their pages, but they also couldn’t even see any news that those same outlets may have posted on Facebook.
Naturally, many were surprised and worried, given this does appear to be the most restrictive move Facebook has ever taken against content publishers anywhere in the world. But why did the American tech giant decide to make this move, and what consequences could this have?
The answer to that question comes in a relatively simple explanation – legislation. According to the government, for every 100 Australian dollars spent on digital advertising in Australia, roughly 81 Australian dollars goes to Google and Facebook. The government claims that their proposed law would seek to level the playing field between news publishers and the tech giants by getting tech companies to pay for content and giving news organisations the ability to work as a bloc to negotiate for favourable financial terms.
That seems relatively fair, given that news outlets are continually complaining of how little revenue they get from traditional means in the age of social media. For Facebook, however, this was too far. In a blog post, Facebook claimed the law ‘left it facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of our relationship with the Australian media or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia.’
Facebook’s decision didn’t go without comment from within Australia. There was confusion, criticism and anger in equal measure from all Australians. Fire and emergency services, domestic violence charities, state health agencies and other organisations all said they were affected by the restrictions. Naturally, this prompted outrage and panic, as Australians found themselves unable to access vital information during a difficult time for the country. Whilst Facebook hurriedly said that it would reverse the restrictions on the pages adversely impacted by its decision, the damage seems to have been done.
In a great state of irony, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison posted his thoughts on the whole matter on Facebook, declaring,
“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them. We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament.”
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg suggested he had a constructive conversation with Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg before Facebook went nuclear. Still, even after that stated quite categorically, the government wasn’t going to budge and was indeed going ahead with the code. This suggests that instead of cowing the government as Facebook perhaps hoped to do, they’ve simply hardened its attitude, which could well come back to bite them down the line.
Facebook might be holding out for now, but Google, the other tech giant impacted by the new law, has agreed to come to the table after much discussion. Indeed, at around the same time that Facebook decided to make its move, Google was signing an agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. This would see it pay the media company for content from its news sites, whilst other companies such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were in talks with Google over a similar agreement.
Facebook’s actions could also impact how it deals with other countries. Whilst Australia’s proposed law is the first of its kind; other countries have long been pressuring Google and Facebook to pay news outlets and other publishers for their material. There has already been some movement in this regard. Last year a court in France forced Google to negotiate with publishers after it upheld an order that said agreements to pay were required by a 2019 European Union copyright directive, a decision that will likely have consequences in other countries within the EU. Facebook has also launched a News Tab in the UK, after completing deals with many of the country’s major news providers such as Sky and The Guardian, which runs on a similar system to that agreed with French publishers.
Facebook may have taken the decision it did on principle or to try and intimidate the Australian government, but that appears to have backfired massively, with the government doubling down on the law. Given the agreements reached in France and the UK, Facebook’s Australian stance makes it look hypocritical. Given the pressure that Facebook is already under, they have to consider whether this fight is worth having and if it is one they can afford to lose.