Why Facebook could prevent Australian users from sharing news

1 Sep 2020

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Publishers and users on Facebook may be prevented from sharing news content on the platform as the company pushes back against a proposed Australian media code.

The Australian government has been working on a mandatory media code that could force tech platforms such as Facebook and Google to share some of the advertising revenue that news content generates with the media companies creating that content.

Now, Facebook has threatened to prevent users and publishers from sharing news on its platform in response to the News Media Bargaining Code, which is being developed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Will Easton, Facebook’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, said in an update yesterday (31 August) that the social media company will “reluctantly” prevent publishers and people in Australia from sharing news on the platform and on Instagram if the proposed code is introduced.

“When crafting this new legislation, the commission overseeing the process ignored important facts, most critically the relationship between the news media and social media and which one benefits most from the other.”

‘Defies logic’

Easton said that preventing users and publishers from sharing local and international news is the company’s “last” choice, claiming that it is the “only way” to protect users from an outcome that “defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector”.

“The proposed law is unprecedented in its reach and seeks to regulate every aspect of how tech companies do business with news publishers. Most perplexing, it would force Facebook to pay news organisations for content that the publishers voluntarily place on our platforms and at a price that ignores the financial value we bring publishers,” he said.

Easton cited some initiatives that Facebook has launched to support media companies in Australia, including free tools that the company provides to help companies reach larger audiences.

“We already invest millions of dollars in Australian news businesses, and during discussions over this legislation we offered to invest millions more,” he said. “We had also hoped to bring Facebook News to Australia, a feature on our platform exclusively for news, where we pay publishers for their content.”

Easton claimed these proposals were overlooked and the company was left with the choice of removing news entirely or accepting a system that lets publishers charge Facebook for “as much content as they want at a price with no clear limits”.

Google, which would also be affected by the proposed law, has also voiced opposition. Earlier this month, Google claimed that the code would give an “unfair advantage” to news media businesses and that the move could put Google’s free services in Australia at risk.

Aiming to level the playing field

The Australian government first began taking steps to introduce the code of conduct earlier this year, stating that it aims to regulate the sharing of data, the ranking of news content online and the sharing of revenue generated from news.

In April, Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg told ABC News: “It’s only fair that those that generate content get paid for it.”

Frydenberg said that a mandatory code would help “level the playing field” during a challenging time for media and news outlets.

“Media companies are facing significant financial pressure and Covid-19 has led to a sharp downturn in advertising revenue across the whole sector.

“Digital platforms need to do more to improve the transparency of their operations for news media providers as they have a significant impact on the capacity of news media organisations to build and maintain an audience and derive resources from the media content they produce.”

The Australian treasurer has acknowledged that the introduction of the code would be “a big mountain to climb”, but stated that the ACCC “won’t bow to threats” as this is “a battle worth fighting”.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic