A proposed news media law in Australia is not yet official, but Facebook proactively decided to block Aussies from sharing news links anyway
Add this to your 2021 bingo card: Australians cannot read or share any news articles on Facebook. The surprise move comes after the social network decided to block all Australian users from sharing or reading any news stories on the platform Wednesday — a decision that raises questions over whether Facebook could do the same thing in the U.S., where millions of people depend on the site as a primary news source.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s quickly go over what led to Facebook’s decision, its impact and what this means for Facebook’s 195 million North American users.
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When did this start?
Beginning on Wednesday, news publisher pages viewed from Australia — including TheWrap’s — were scrubbed of any posts, and Australian Facebook users found themselves unable to view or share any articles from Australian or international news media.
In the company’s announcement of the news ban, Facebook Australia and New Zealand’s managing director, William Easton, said the company was responding to Australia’s proposed news media bargaining legislation, which would require big tech companies to pay Australia’s media companies for their content. Australia’s proposed changes are not yet official, but Facebook proactively decided to block Aussies from sharing news links anyway.
“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,” Easton said in a memo. “With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”
What is Australia’s news media bargaining law?
The legislation is working its way through the country’s parliament, and would require Facebook and Google to pay for content the big tech companies currently distribute to the masses for free while also monetizing that content without paying a revenue share to the original publishers.
“There is a fundamental bargaining power imbalance between news media businesses and the major digital platforms,” Rod Sims, the chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said last July. “News businesses have no option but to deal with the platforms, and have had little ability to negotiate over payment for their content or other issues.”
Under the proposed legislation, media companies and tech companies would have to negotiate over payments, but if the parties cannot come to an agreement after three months, an independent arbitrator would select a plan for compensation.
Where’s Google in all of this?
Google appears to be taking a different path than Facebook. On the same day Facebook announced its Australian news ban, Google and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp announced a three-year partnership to share ad revenue and build a subscription platform for news content from the company.
Though exact terms of the deal were not disclosed, NewsCorp said it would receive “significant payments” from Google for the use of content from NewsCorp’s numerous outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, MarketWatch and Barron’s, on the Google News Showcase.
The deal also includes content from NewsCorp’s Australian brands like The Australian, news.com.au and Sky News, meaning Google was willing to strike a deal with NewsCorp and pay for content while Facebook was not.
How have Australians been impacted?
Australians can still read news content elsewhere, but the reactions to Facebook’s news ban have been severe.
Stephen Schiller, the former CEO of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, encouraged people to delete the Facebook app and questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s motives. “I’m a proud ex-Facebooker, but over the years I get more and more exasperated. For Facebook and Mark it’s too much about the money and the power, and not about the good,” Scheeler said in an interview with The Australian. “I’m sad for Facebook in a way, but if you wanted a glaring example of why Facebook needs more regulation, this is it.”
Paul Fletcher, the Australian communications minister, warned Facebook that it needed to “think very carefully” about what it was doing. “Facebook needs to think very carefully about what this means for its reputation and standing,” Fletcher told Australia’s ABC News. “They’re effectively saying, ‘On our platform there will not be any information from organizations that employ paid journalists.'”
Meanwhile, government Facebook pages that contained information about emergency services were “inadvertently impacted” — but later reinstated. That mishap sparked a sharp rebuke from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Morrison said in a Facebook post. “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”
Will this affect Facebook in the U.S.?
The news ban is only in effect in Australia, but it could trigger further discussion about if and how tech companies should compensate publishers for their content. While Facebook could pull a similar site-wide block on news content for American users, the U.S. doesn’t appear as close as Australia to implementing new regulations regarding payment for content creators on social media.
Still, a bill similar to Australia’s proposed law has been floating around for more than a year. The “Journalism Competition and Preservation Act,” introduced in the House in April 2019, would allow publishers to collectively negotiate with tech companies over their content. The bill has the support of the News Media Alliance and its roughly 2,000 member organizations, but to this point hasn’t gained momentum to get across the finish line. Critics of the bill have also pointed out it doesn’t cover all news outlets, since broadcasters like CNN and Fox News are left out of the collective bargaining group.
But the attitude toward social media companies and Big Tech has clearly shifted in Washington, D.C. — even before Joe Biden’s inauguration and a new Democratic-led Congress. Facebook and Google are facing more regulatory heat now than they were in mid-2019, with both companies recently hit with antitrust lawsuits. Anti-Big Tech sentiment has become a bipartisan issue. The 2019 bill or something similar could gain traction in 2021, and that might be enough for Facebook to act.
It would probably be harder for Facebook to make the same move in the United States. For one, it’s a bigger market. In addition, millions of Americans rely on Facebook as a primary news source. A 2019 Pew survey found 43% of Americans get their news from Facebook. Zuckerberg and Co. would have to think hard before banning news from being shared in the U.S., if only because it keeps users glued to their screens longer.