News goes dark on Facebook Australia: What this means for users worldwide

18 Feb 2021

Image: © Rey/Stock.adobe.com

Facebook’s broad culling of Australian news sources has had far-reaching effects, while Google is partnering up with publishers.

Within days, Australia’s proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code is expected to be voted into law. But ahead of this fundamental shift in the Australian media landscape, Facebook has staged a dramatic exit.

Overnight, the company blocked content from Australian news media from appearing on its platform. This move impacted both pages run by news organisations in Australia as well as individual Facebook users.

The restrictions also spill over to Facebook users globally. For all users across the platform, posting and sharing news links from Australian publishers is now restricted. International publishers can continue posting news content on Facebook, but links and posts cannot be shared by Australian audiences.

The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content’
– WILLIAM EASTON

In an online post yesterday (17 February), William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, explained that the company is using a “combination of technologies” to roll out these restrictions. He added that there will be processes in place to review any content that was removed inadvertently.

This, however, was an issue that was immediately flagged by users across Australia. Pages used by charities, NGOs, public health bodies, emergency services, major government accounts and weather services were initially hit by the block.

No news is bad news

This misstep sparked major criticism for Facebook as some of those services that were blocked provide information that is vital to public health and safety, such as advice regarding Covid-19.

“For Facebook to block access to the feeds of trusted science and health organisations in Australia during a pandemic and bushfire season is irresponsible and dangerous,” Science & Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert told ABC News Australia.

“At a time when the company is taking steps to tackle misinformation on its platform, it’s concerning it has chosen to silence some of this nation’s leading scientific voices.”

Reuters reports that even Facebook’s own page was down for several hours during the restrictions roll-out.

A follow-up statement from Facebook blamed these errors on the lack of clear definitions in the proposed bargaining code. “As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” said a company spokesperson.

Facebook has set about restoring pages and content that were blocked in error. However, there are as yet no plans to restore content from international news outlets such as the New York Times, BBC, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and many more.

“We will continue to engage with the government on amendments to the law, with the aim of achieving a stable, fair path for both Facebook and publishers,” Facebook told tech journalist Casey Newton.

Why Facebook made the call to cull

Facebook’s changes mean that publishers in Australia are restricted from sharing or posting any content on pages they have created on the platform.

Facebook users in Australia will not be able to view or share either Australian or international news content on the platform. They also can’t view or share posts made to these brands’ Facebook pages. Users outside of Australia will also be unable to view or share content from what the company has determined to be an Australian news source.

According to Facebook, news content generally represents 4pc of what users view on their feeds. However, the instant and angered response to the block indicates that restricting access to this content can still have a dramatic impact.

Facebook made this controversial call in response to the expected implementation of the Australian news media bargaining code.

This code hopes to address a perceived imbalance between new publishers and platforms such as Google and Facebook. While both sites serve as an essential conduit directing readers to news websites, the vast viewership both Facebook and Google command has attracted advertisers away from media outlets themselves. Together, they account for more than 80pc of Australian digital advertising revenue, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The proposed media bargaining code would force platforms such as Facebook and Google to pay Australian news businesses for content linked to, or featured, on their platforms.

Easton claimed the draft law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content”. He contended that it is the publishers that benefit most in their present relationship with Facebook. For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal,” he added.

Easton argued that the code seeks to charge Facebook “for content it didn’t take or ask for”. This, he said, led Facebook to the decision to restrict its services across Australia “with a heavy heart”.

What Google did

Google, on the other hand, is taking steps towards compliance with the code. The search giant previously threatened to restrict its services in Australia in response to the bargaining code, though it appears to have softened its stance.

In recent weeks, the Alphabet-owned company has struck a number of deals with Australian publishers, the latest of which was announced yesterday with News Corp.

A three-year partnership between Google and News Corp will see its content made available through Google News Showcase, a new product Google has set out to build in partnership with publishers.

This deal will bring News Corp publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, The Times and Sunday Times (UK), The Australian, Sky News and many local titles to Google News Showcase, which will present more than just search results and snippets to users. In return, Google has agreed to make “significant payments” to News Corp, according to the latter’s announcement.

The News Corp deal also includes the development of a subscription platform and the sharing of ad revenue, as well as support for the development of audio and video journalism.

Google has also signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Seven West Media, one of the biggest news publishers in Australia, while media company Nine Entertainment signed up for News Showcase for a reported $30m per year.

While these deals were not made under the auspices of the media bargaining code, it is expected that they will ensure no further need for arbitration between Google and these companies.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

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