Yves here. Facebook has decided to go nuclear in its dispute with the Australian government over a plan to require the media giant to share revenues with content providers and has barred all news content. And yes, this is a big deal:
Feel like it should be a bigger story that Facebook banned *an entire continent* from posting news articles just to avoid paying a nominal taxhttps://t.co/4WcCBHXz81
— Ken Klippenstein (@kenklippenstein) February 18, 2021
What Facebook has blocked in Australia so far:
– All news media (local and global)
– Health authorities (and their pandemic/vaccine updates)
– Police and emergency services
– Weather bureau (during bushfire/flood season)
– Domestic violence helpline
– Politicians' accounts
— Frances Mao (@francesmao) February 17, 2021
This company is a danger to the public interest around the world and does not try to hide it. https://t.co/1usEAFuOwZ
— Zach Carter (@zachdcarter) February 17, 2021
Australians woke to empty Facebook news feeds on Thursday, after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprise escalation of a dispute with the government, which could be a test for the future of online publishing worldwide.
The move was swiftly criticised by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates, particularly as it became clear that official health pages, emergency safety warnings and welfare networks had all been scrubbed from the site along with news.
“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on his own Facebook page, using the vernacular for cutting ties with another person on the site.
“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”
A planned Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price.
The Guardian stresses that Facebook’s ban was a big cock-up:
The Bureau of Meteorology, state health departments, the Western Australian opposition leader, charities and Facebook itself are among those to have been hit by Facebook’s ban on news in Australia.
On Thursday morning Facebook began preventing Australian news sites from posting, while also stopping Australian users from sharing or viewing content from any news outlets, both Australian and international.
The social media giant said it made the decision in response to the news media bargaining code currently before the Senate, which would force Facebook and Google to negotiate with news companies for payment for content.
While the ban was only meant to target Australian news publishers, dozens of pages run by key government agencies, community pages, union pages, charity organisations and politicians were also blocked for several hours.
Australia’s main source of weather information, the Bureau of Meteorology, said on Thursday morning that it had been blocked, and was advising users to go to its direct website, app or Twitter page.
Needless to say, this is not winning friends among the locals. From BBC: “Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan accused the company of “‘behaving like a North Korean dictator’.” And by contrast, Google was working on getting deals done.
This development was so significant that The Conversation sent out a special newsletter to Australian readers, with links to additional posts. We’re including on the main piece but encourage you to click through to the detailed accounts.
And consistent with our “If your business depends on a platform, you don’t have a business” stance, less than 1% of our traffic comes from Facebook.
A special alert from The Conversation
|So Facebook has followed through on its threat to ban news on its Australian platform. It’s an aggressive move, a muscle-flex clearly designed to say “we don’t need journalism, journalism needs us”. The larger aim is to scare the Australian Government into a retreat on its proposed media bargaining laws that would see Facebook and Google pay for journalism.
Of course it’s not going to work. In the short run Facebook’s move will have serious consequences, especially on the eve of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. The appalling decision to take down government health information sites demonstrates how callously indifferent this American corporation can be to the well-being of its audiences.
In the longer term it is worth remembering we got along pretty well before Facebook arrived on our shores, with their steady stream of conspiracy theories and QAnon. Should this rupture prove irreparable we will be able to do so again.
But it shouldn’t come to that. To use The Conversation as an example, we get about 7% of our readers from Facebook and we currently provide all our work to Facebook for free. We do it because we believe facts matter, and the large audience that gets all its news from Facebook needs access to the sort of reliable information from experts that we provide.
The government’s proposed media bargaining code provides a negotiation mechanism for Facebook to pay a fee to support some of that work. It is complex and arguably flawed, but it should not be impossible to fix. Perhaps ironically, behind the scenes Facebook is much more reasonable than its actions suggest. Their spokespeople say they do value journalism and are willing to pay to support it, and they have done so in the past. The only sticking points are how they pay, and how much.
Two things need to happen now. Cooler heads must prevail and we must not buckle to Facebook’s reckless attempt to throw its weight around. It’s a tough situation for the Morrison government, which deserves credit for taking on this fight. Now it must see it through.
This special newsletter contains analysis and commentary on Facebook’s move from Diana Bossio and Lisa Given from Swinburne, James Meese from RMIT, Maryke Steffens from Macquarie University and University of Sydney, David Tuffleyfrom Griffith and Caroline Fisher, Kerry McCallum, Kieran McGuinness and Sora Park from the University of Canberra.