Facebook’s Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand, Will Easton, announced that the social media and tech titan would bar “publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.” Laura Valkovic’s Liberty News weekly column Tech Tyranny has kept our LN readers up to the minute on how social media services all too often threaten our rights, but Facebook is now going nose-to-nose with a whole country. The Guardian’s Josh Taylor, in his article Facebook’s Australia news ban: what is the social media giant up to and how will you be affected? warned:
“News has been banned from Facebook in Australia as the social media giant steps up its fight against the federal government’s proposed news media code. What does it all mean? Will we see news on Facebook again any time soon? Or will we be left with family photos and cat memes? All Australian news organizations are no longer able to post content to their Facebook pages, and people based in Australia are not be able to link to news articles from either Australian or international news sites.”
It seems that the kerfuffle began when the Australian government began to consider “Treasury Laws Amendment Bill 2021.” Sounds arcane and benign; boring, administrative law stuff.
However, the amendment applies to “News Media and Digital Platforms.” Digital platforms mean Facebook. What the amendment does is to add to the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 a “mandatory code of conduct that applies to news media business and digital platform corporations when bargaining in relations to news content made available by digital platform services.” BBC News, in its piece Australia news code: What’s this row with Facebook and Google all about? put it this way:
“A dispute over a planned law that would force tech giants Facebook and Google to pay for news content in Australia is being keenly watched worldwide. The world-first law aims to address the media’s loss of advertising revenue to US tech firms. If passed, the law could have global consequences for tech firms and how we access news online. But the tech firms have pushed back, with Facebook restricting news content in Australia.”
“Arrogant and Disappointing”
Facebook’s remedy? As Easton tells us: “In response to Australia’s proposed new Media Bargaining law, Facebook will restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.” As we understand Facebook’s actions, not just publishers will be prohibited from sharing local, national, and international news on their Facebook pages, but your average bloke or mate, in this case, is barred as well.
The Australian government is not sitting back and taking it, either. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison shakes a verbal fist, exclaiming that the decision to “unfriend Australia” was “arrogant and disappointing.” According to the BBC, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan “accused Facebook of ‘behaving like a North Korean dictator.'” Kim Jong-un, who actually is a North Korean dictator, could not be reached for comment.
Easton’s response to the Australian government is the Facebook argument: “the legislation ‘fundamentally misunderstands’ its relationship with publishers.” Unfortunately for the social media giant, that defense is not washing with the critics of its decision to deny Australians access to Australian and international news. As the BBC tells us, those voicing objections are an odd set of bedfellows. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Treasurer of Australia are on the same side on this one. It is a “dangerous turn of events,” said the Australian Human Rights Watch. A local campaigner for Amnesty International said it was “extremely concerning that a private company is willing to control access to information that people rely on.”
A number of public information accounts were also caught in the crosshairs. However, after Facebook’s Asia-Pacific executive Simon Milner apologized for the overstepping, PM Morrison announced – not without humor – that the company had “tentatively friended us again.” He also said that he was glad that the tech giant had returned to the negotiating table.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg put a human face on what Facebook has done, saying that denying the Australian people a news source had a “huge community impact.'” According to Frydenberg, nearly 17 million Australians use the social media [Facebook] site every month, and it has become an important place for news of the country. Additionally, consumers reported that they get 37% of their news via social media.
Whether the company anticipated the adverse reaction or not, the international community has picked up the anti-Facebook drumbeat. Bloomberg’s Natalia Drozdiak explains that news publishers encouraged the European Union (EU) to adopt portions of the Australian law that “would force Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to pay an agreed price for their content.” The publishers want the EU to force the giant tech companies to accept binding arbitration if the two parties cannot “agree on payments for snippets of articles shown on the platforms.”
Right now, the donnybrook between Facebook, led by its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the Government of Australia continues. The Australian people are the losers for it. As these disputes so often do, the warring parties will eventually come to some common ground. It’s not surprising – there was real money on the table, after all.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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