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Facebook threatens to block news sharing in Australia as it lobbies against revenue share law

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newspaper falling into a hole shaped like the Facebook logo
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Adtech giant and self-styled ‘free speech champion’, Facebook, has threatened to pull the plug on the public sharing of news content on Facebook and Instagram in Australia.

The aggressive threat is Facebook’s attempt to lobby against a government plan that will require it and Google to share revenue with regional news media to recompense publishers for distributing and monetizing professionally produced content on their platforms.

Consultation on a draft of the mandatory code — which Australia’s lawmakers say is intended to address “acute bargaining power imbalances” between local news businesses and the adtech duopoly — closed on August 28, with a final version expected imminently from Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and then due to be put before parliament.

Facebook’s threat thus looks timed to turn the heat up on lawmakers as they’re about to debate the details of the code. However dangling the prospect of blocking professionally produced news in an attempt to thwart a law change that’s not in its commercial interests will do nothing to reduce lawmakers’ concerns about the level of market power being wielded by tech giants.

Last month Google also warned that if Australia goes ahead with the plan then the quality of regional search results and YouTube recommendations will suffer — becoming “less relevant and helpful” if the law goes into effect.

Both platform giants are essentially saying that unless the bulk of professional reportage can be freely distributed on their platforms, leaving them free to monetize it via serving ads and through the acquisition of associated user data, then unverified user generated content will be left to fill the gap.

The clear implication is that lower grade content — and potentially democracy-denting disinformation — will be left to thrive. Or, in plainer language, the threat boils down to: Give us your journalism for free or watch your society pay the price as our platforms plug the information gap with any old clickbait.

“The ACCC presumes that Facebook benefits most in its relationship with publishers, when in fact the reverse is true. News represents a fraction of what people see in their News Feed and is not a significant source of revenue for us. Still, we recognize that news provides a vitally important role in society and democracy, which is why we offer free tools and training to help media companies reach an audience many times larger than they have previously,” writes Facebook in the same blog post where it threatens — as a ‘last choice’ — to pull the plug on content it describes as playing “a vitally important role in society and democracy” because it doesn’t want to have to pay for it.

Facebook’s calculus is clearly elevating its own commercial interests above free speech. And indeed above democracy and society. Yet the tech giant’s go-to defence for not removing all sorts of toxic disinformation and/or hateful, abusive content — or indeed lying political ads — from circulating on its platform is a claim that it’s defending ‘free speech’. So this is a specially rank, two-faced kind of platform hypocrisy on display.

Last year the comic Sacha Baron Cohen slammed Facebook’s modus operandi as “ideological imperialism” — warning then that unaccountable Silicon Valley ‘robber barons’ are “acting like they’re above the reach of law”. Well, Australians are now getting a glimpse of what happens when the mask further slips.

The ACCC has responded to Facebook’s flex with a steely statement of its own, attributed to chair Rod Sims.

“Facebook’s threat today to prevent any sharing of news on its services in Australia is ill-timed and misconceived,” he writes. “The draft media bargaining code aims to ensure Australian news businesses, including independent, community and regional media, can get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google.”

“Facebook already pays some media for news content. The code simply aims to bring fairness and transparency to Facebook and Google’s relationships with Australian news media businesses,” he adds.

“As the ACCC and the Government work to finalise the draft legislation, we hope all parties will engage in constructive discussions.”

A similar battle is playing out in France over Google News, following a recent pan-EU law change which extended copyright to news snippets. France has been at the forefront of implementing the change in national law — and Google has responded by changing how it displays news media content in Google News in the country, switching to showing headlines and URLs only (so removing snippets).

However earlier this year France’s competition watchdog slapped down the tactic — saying Google’s unilateral withdrawal of snippets to deny payment to publishers is likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant market position, which it asserted “seriously and immediately damaged the press sector.”

Google’s share of the search market in Europe remains massively dominant — with the tech giant taking greater than 90% marketshare. (Something that underpins a number of regional antitrust enforcements against various aspects of its business.)

In Australia, Facebook’s position as a news distributor appears to be less strong, with the ACCC citing the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report which found that 39% of Australians use Facebook for general news, and 49% use Facebook for news about COVID-19.

However information and disinformation do not distribute equally, with plenty of studies indicating a faster spread for fake news — which suggests Facebook’s platform power to distribute bullshit is far greater than its role in informing societies by spreading bona fide news. That in turn makes its threat to block genuine reportage an antisocial weaponization of its dominance of social media.

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