In what turned out to be the most shocking and deceptive of all cyber acts, Australia and Australians were both caught off guard by Facebook Inc.
The social media giant’s decision to remove news from its platform due to a deep spat with the Government of Australia over legislation covering payment for content has hurt numerous businesses in the country especially when they were doing their best during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Government of Australia is thinking about passing legislation requiring tech giants to pay Australian news companies for news space on the internet. Facebook’s operations were causing Australian news companies serious losses in terms of revenue.
Facebook had followed through on it overnight 2 days ago after threatening to band Australian users from posting news. The move was dreadful as it also cut off access to information like the national weather service and cut news’ access on pages of local healthcare institutions and sites. However, Facebook stated that such had been done by accident.
A clearer view of what is happening between Facebook and the Government of Australia?
In response to potential regulation by the Government of Australia, Facebook responded to it by blocking news in the country. It is also preventing Australian users and publishers (individuals and businesses alike) from sharing and viewing news. Google was planning to do the same but somehow made a different decision in response to the proposed legislation in the country.
Facebook’s block is coming from its disagreement with Australia’s newest proposed legislation, the News Media Bargaining Code. The legislation forms the basis of arguments of Australia’s news outlets, who say that they should be compensated for articles presented on online platforms like Facebook and Google.
According to the proposed law, news outlets could bargain with Facebook and Google for compensation regarding news content being shown and shared on their platforms. Questions regarding the legislation pointed out the fact that the code was created to address the imbalance of bargaining power between the tech giants and Australian news outlets.
This law will force Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with Australian publishers or face compulsory adjudication.
If the law would have not been drafted, Australian media outlets would have endured monumental losses in the coming days.
Yet, there is news regarding the Australian Law, the News Media Bargaining Code. It has already been cleared by the Federal Lower House and is expected to be passed by the Australian Senate within the next seven days.
Is there any collateral damage caused by the dispute between Facebook Inc. and the Government of Australia?
Marcey Papandrea, a 36-year-old owner of a movie review website known as the Super Network is disappointed and heartbroken. Her hard work of 10 years in creating a small following on Facebook in drawing people to her website has been quashed. She blamed both the Government of Australia and Facebook for such an outcome.
On her website, she posts reviews of movies as well as related podcasts. Last week on Thursday, she woke at her Melbourne home, only to find out that her Facebook page has been blocked.
According to her:
“I have no idea what Facebook’s algorithm would be that someone like me would be targeted. At the end of the day, this is like a mudslinging contest.”
Is Facebook supportive of such legislation in Australia?
The American tech giant vehemently opposes legislation by the Australian government that effectively requires big tech firms to pay the country’s media outlets for content. Since the legislation is being watched by all companies around the globe, it could offer a model for governments of other countries to follow suit.
Such legislation is working its way through Australia’s parliament.
What did Facebook have to say about such a move by the Government of Australia?
In a blog post, Facebook had this to say:
“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. 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.”
The News Media Bargaining Code is the law through which Australia is doing its best to get tech firms (Facebook & Google included) to pay for the news that is widely shared on their websites. Why? Because the advertising revenue that was once supporting publishers is now slipping away.
This law would force the tech firms to sign deals with media companies or have a set of fees set for them regarding sharing and publishing of this news on these platforms.
To add a further twist to the tale, Google had once threatened to withdraw its search services from Australia. However, in what looks like a clear U-turn, it started securing agreements with revenue-sharing with Australian publishers at the same time.
This paints a somewhat tricky yet clearer picture of the bias the big tech firms have in their essence. Yet, Facebook is insisting that its relationship with the news industry is primarily different.
According to the platform: “Publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences, and increase advertising revenue.”
It should be noted that last year, Facebook generated 5.1 billion referrals which helped it earn around 407 million Australian Dollars (USD$ 315 million) for the publishers.
The platform claimed it was a value exchange working in favor of the Australian publishers, which is somehow disputed in the account of what Australian businesses, citizens and state government describes as Facebook stealing cookies from the cookie jar.
What is the response of the Australian Government and Society in this regard?
Facebook’s sudden move in blocking news has sparked outrage of monumental proportions because some Government and Emergency Response pages (Fire services, health authorities, and the police) also went dark. This in turn also affected Facebook’s page.
According to Australia Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who earlier had a discussion with Facebook’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg regarding the legislation, condemned Facebook’s move and stated:
“Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia.”
Mr. Frydenberg had more to say. For the second time following the news blackout, he spoke to Mark Zuckerberg. According to him in a tweet: “We talked through their remaining issues and agreed our respective teams would work through them immediately. We’ll talk again over the weekend.”
Yet, Facebook was adamant in its stance. In its statement announcing its move to Australia, the social media giant said that the Australian legislation misunderstood the platform’s value to publishers. Somehow, this statement is untrue as most publishers are irked by abusive market practices Google and Facebook have employed there.
Mr. Frydenberg earlier told the following to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “There is something much bigger here at stake than just one or two commercial deals. This is about Australia’s sovereignty.”
The same words of Mr. Frydenberg were both indirectly and directly echoed by numerous organizations and individuals in Australia. A considerable majority of media analysts and Facebook-watchers condemned the platform’s actions and accused the company of bullying, in light of the net profit of USD$ 29.2 billion it made last year.
Both Facebook and Google had campaigned together against the law set forth by the Australian Government. They both had threatened to withdraw key services from Australia if it brought the laws into effect.
However, Google took a major u-turn and signed a deal with Australian news giant News Corp.
According to American journalist Judd Legum:
“Facebook’s actions today can best be understood as an aggressive lobbying effort. It’s showing the Australian government it’s willing to follow through with the ban. Tough to square this bare-knuckled approach with the company’s supposed commitment to free speech.”
Marcus Strom, the President of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA, also referred to as The Alliance), the Australian trade union and professional organization covering the entertainment, media, arts, and sports industries, said that Facebook probably fears other countries adopting similar laws.
According to Mr. Strom
“This is not just about Australia. They are worried about a global precedent. This is a classic monopoly move by a powerful company trying to dictate what society does when in a democratic society, it’s civil society that needs to determine how tech companies operate.”
What was Google’s Response to Australia’s proposed legislation?
In response to the News Media Bargaining Code, Google signed a landmark deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, last week on Wednesday. This ensures that it can show news from the company in Australia as Google has paid for that news. This also lays the foundation for developing a subscription platform and sharing advertising revenue.
Also, another point worth noting; News Corp has also come under fire in Australia as it dominates a large part of the Australian news industry.
Another fact worth noting is that the Alphabet-owned company has secured deals with publishers in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Argentina, and Brazil for its Google News Showcase product.
However, Facebook’s move is the exact opposite as it has prevented Australians from sharing news links around the world. It should be kept in mind that Facebook’s decision comes in within rising tensions between social media giants and state governments around the world doing their best to regulate the tech industry.
What do journalists and other prominent figures outside Australia think of Facebook’s actions in the country?
Emily Bell, the Director of the Two Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School said that Facebook’s claim about being a voluntary platform where news publishers willingly share their content is itself a misguiding statement that distorts the relationship it has with its users, businesses, and organizations alike.
According to her:
“Most publishers feel obliged to be on Facebook. They don’t like the asymmetry of the relationship, they dislike the requirement of going through an intermediary without access to even negligible data.”
There was a time when Facebook’s intrusions into personal privacy space were beginning to get noticed and the social networking giant acted to fix it. However, there came more issues and in 2017, a Thai man murdered his 11-month-old daughter live on Facebook, which then forced the social network to start moderating things but struggled to do so.
Yet, the social media giant is facing stern criticism for allowing a lot of wrongful information and propaganda to be posted on it. The Christchurch shootings of March 15, 2019was also posted live on the social media platform, at a time when it was moderating live transmissions and broadcasts which it did not fulfill.
According to a spokesperson from the Australian television network Nine:
“Nobody benefits from this decision as Facebook will now be a platform for misinformation to rapidly spread without balance. This action proves again their monopoly position and unreasonable behavior.”
Facebook’s time might be coming to an end and this may just be the inception of such an event. Its abusive and monopolistic market practices have made it the least preferred social network around the world. Furthermore, its acquisitions of Snap Chat, WhatsApp, and Instagram are drawing further scrutiny from numerous governments, bodies, authorities, and organizations as well as individuals from around the globe.
In short, Facebook has created a recipe leading to disasters for the social media giant and eventually, its demise.