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When Facebook Unfriended Australia

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

By Mariam H. & Jessica L

“Facebook has banned news content in Australia” was the main headline that grabbed everyone’s attention on Thursday morning. National News platforms such as ABC and satire websites like The Betoota Advocate, as well as the invaluable facebook page ‘North shore mums’, turned into blank slates devoid of any content. The ban spread into non-news platforms leaving sites providing health or emergency resources without any information to give. Many of us started stewing in outrage at this unbelievable act, thinking it is a breach of the boundaries of “free speech”. We started taking to our Instagram stories to spread our uproar and to prophesize the impending Orwellian restructuring of our society. However, looking beyond this frenzied rage a bigger picture begins to emerge, one that has been reported and talked about in the news but received very little regard from the public. Leaving to wonder how did this suddenly surprise us when there were already warning signs from the very beginning?

The warning signs - the beef begins and Google be begging

So Facebook’s actions were not completely out of the blue. The tensions between the Australian Government and the tech giants, Facebook and Google, have been bubbling away for a hot minute.

Let’s throw it back to the very different pre-covid world of late 2018, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) complete their public inquiry into the impact of digital platforms on competition in media and advertising services markets, specifically news and journalistic content. They find that Facebook and Google have an unfair advantage, and recommend a “specific code of practice for digital platforms’ data collection to better inform consumers and improve their bargaining power.”

The ACCC goes on to release a draft code on the 31st of July 2020. The code states that news media businesses would be able to individually or collectively bargain with Google and Facebook for overpayment for the inclusion of news on their services.

It’s around this time that all of this begins to trickle down to us, the general public. Google has a bit of a freakout and threatens to withdraw their search bar from Australia, which I’ll be honest kind of sends a shiver down my spine (eugh can you imagine having to use Bing!). They also start a weird guerrilla campaign to get Australians on their side by publishing an “open letter” on their homepage, adding on-site pop-ups, and that video with Mel Silva, Google Australia’s managing director. You know the one where she’s talking about a friend and coffee shops and paying for recommendations (it’s a very long analogy).

So while Google is busy doing their thing, we don’t really hear much from Facebook publicly. Behind the scenes, Facebook is trying to come to an agreement with the Australian government, specifically Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communication’s minister Paul Fletcher.

Obviously, that agreement was not reached. Which brings us to…

The Code:

The Code refers to the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, a new legislation the Australian Federal Government is trying to get passed through the senate.

The basic gist of the Code is that Facebook and Google will have to pay news media for the content that is displayed on their platform.

The legislation wouldn’t apply to all news media businesses, however. To be eligible they need to be:

  1. Producing ‘core news’ and publishing it online. This is basically all things concerning community or local events.

  2. Adhere to professional editorial standards e.g. by the press council or independent media council

  3. Have editorial independence from subjects of their news

  4. Need to operate primarily in Australia for Australian audiences

  5. Their annual revenue must exceed $150 000

For some extra spice, the code also stipulates that Google and Facebook have to adhere to a set of minimum standards. They would have to provide advance notice of any changes to the algorithmic rankings and the presentation of news. All original news content needs to be recognised as such. And here the real kicker, Google, and Facebook need to provide information on how and when they make user data collected through users’ interaction with the news content available to others.

This code would be the first of its kind worldwide.

The key players:

There are two main sides to this whole thing and then kind of a third quieter side. All of them kind of have a point and all of them kind of scare me.

The Australian government and Australian media

On side one, we’ve got a team-up of the Australian Government and Australian media. The Australian government’s main objective is to level the playing field for news media and journalistic content. Basically, in the past decade, the tech giants’ influence and market power have been steadily growing, in contrast, traditional news media’s revenue has been decreasing. See, the changing landscape of the news media has shifted consumption patterns, which has made traditional forms of revenue, namely commercial advertising, no longer viable. Advertisers are more likely to pay tech giants to feature their ads alongside searches and newsfeeds full of content created by news media than they are to pay the news media business themselves. The ACCC inquiry found that for every $100 spent on online advertising, $53 went to Google, $28 to Facebook, and $19 to other media companies.

Apparently, the Zuckerberg himself tried to entreat Treasurer Frydenberg and Communication Minister Fletcher directly just last week, but the Government was unbudging. I could have saved Zuckers the hassle, we all know after all how close the Australian government and media have always been. I mean Scomo and Frydenberg were at News Corp Co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch Christmas Party in 2019, so….

(kidding kidding)

The Tech Giants

The other side of this whole thing is, of course, Google and Facebook. They argue that the traditional media’s revenue decline is not caused by tech companies but rather the loss of classified advertising which transferred onto market-specific online platforms. That’s like the stuff at the back of newspapers job ads, motor vehicle sales, that guy from the pina colada song and his lucky lady, etc.

The tech companies state that they do not make or share ad revenue from news-related content or searches. For Google, this means when you look up any kind of news content there would barely be any ads that pop up on the side of your screen. Try it out yourself on Google, look up news content such as “Australian news” then compare it when you look up something else like “shoes” and see which search produces ads. This is a similar argument that is put forward by Facebook Australia and New Zealand, whose managing director states, “For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal. News makes up less than 4 percent of the content people see in their news feed. Journalism is important to a democratic society, which is why we build dedicated, free tools to support news organisations around the world in innovating their content for online audiences.”

Facebook also argues that the code means that they would have to continuously renegotiate payment deals with news publishers after each upgrade of the platform. They are also reticent of having to make deals with the hundreds of media businesses, both large and small. It should be noted that the Government has responded to this concern by stating that FB would be able to make default offers to regional and suburban news outlets.

So who’s right? Who’s the bad guy?

Hard to say really, but here are the main arguments on either side, taking into consideration Facebook’s hissy fit.

On the Government’s side, ScoMo has expressed that by taking these extreme measures Facebook was confirming the fears of world leaders that the platform thinks it operates outside of Governments and that laws do not apply to them. The move once again raises concerns over the influence and power of tech companies.

It would also be remiss not to mention that Facebook’s initial blacklisting algorithm meant that all health and emergency services pages were also blocked. Facebook tried to make this into a whole thing by basically saying “see how vague your law is, the algorithm even got confused”(not a direct quote). Regardless, the fact is they blocked pages that are crucial for the sharing of information during a pandemic. Australian Medical Association President Omar Khorshid called out Facebook actions as “irresponsible corporate bullying during a global pandemic”. Yikes! Tell us how you really feel Omar.

Microsoft president Brad Smith. He states that the code will “reduce the bargaining imbalance that currently favours tech gatekeepers and will help increase opportunities for independent journalism". Smith is also urging other countries to follow Australia’s example and implement similar legislation.

On the tech side, a big argument against the code comes from the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee, and one of the founders of the internet Vint Cerf (also a VP of Google, so definitely not biased at all). Berners-Lee and Cerf argue that the code will disrupt the nature of the free and open web if Tech companies have to pay for links. Berners-Lee states that the international precedent the code would set could make the web “unworkable”. Atlassian Director of Global and Public Policy David Masters corroborates arguing that the code could disrupt the neutrality of the web.

A different argument, not so much on the tech side, but rather against the code relates to the impact it will have on the media monopoly. The fear is that the code will further entrench bigger, more established news media leaving behind smaller, independent publications that struggle for readership as it is. Basically, the fear is Nine news and News corp sucking the remaining vestiges of life from Australia’s media landscape. Ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it really well at the senate inquiry last Friday, “The problem that we’ve seen within Facebook’s actions in the last 24 hours is that they give us a graphic example of what a very large new media monopoly can do to abuse its power…The problem with the government’s current response to the challenges of the digital media marketing code is that it seeks to solve one problem ... by enhancing the power of the existing monopoly – that’s Murdoch.”

The conclusion… the part where we admit it is all a mess and we’ve understood nothing

It’s hard to say what all of this will mean. The internet is still a very new phenomenon, and I guess we are now entering the rebellious teenager face, where it's all very exciting but we are also kind of afraid that they set us all on fire in a fit of anarchical angst. In short, it's a developing space that is constantly being affected by the surrounding socio-political factors.

The immediate impact will be felt in the way Australians access news. This will especially impact younger generations a third of whom have already learned to depend on getting news from social media. We have shifted from viewing news content on Facebook out of convenience to a daily necessity. During these COVID times, we have become even more dependent on these platforms for more than one reason. As we write this article Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has confirmed that the government will withdraw their advertising from Facebook. This includes a campaign regarding the coronavirus vaccine. It’s funny that at the beginning of the pandemic, these online platforms were a key avenue of information, yet now we find ourselves unable to get credible information about coronavirus vaccines.

Whether the Code becomes law and Facebook persists in its stance or another concession is reached in the end both outcomes will set new precedents for the way government bodies and tech companies exercise control over the internet space. With such extreme changes who knows what will follow next?



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