03 September 2020

The New York Times: “Facebook could block Sharing of News Stories in Australia”

Facebook warned on Monday that it would block users and news organizations in Australia from sharing local and international news stories on its social network and Instagram if the country passed a proposed code of conduct aimed at curbing the power of Facebook and Google.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the country’s top competition authority, is drafting a bill for Parliament that would require both companies to negotiate with media publishers and pay them for content that appears on their sites.

Google also hinted that it might have to cut off its services in Australia in an open letter to users on Aug. 17. Google said the government’s draft legislation would give large media companies “special treatment” so they could make unreasonable demands that would make it difficult to keep Google search and YouTube videos free. Google, which owns YouTube, didn’t indicate how it would respond, but said its free services would be “at risk”.

Daisuke Wakabayashi & Mike Isaac

Facebook in a nutshell:

The company was also quick to update its terms of service to allow for blocking any content that could increase its regulatory or legal risks, in this case any links to Australian news sites. One must wonder why it is so difficult for Facebook to block hate speech and misinformation and yet so easy to remove legitimate news sources… The deeper issue is that, with real journalism banned from the platform, this makes more room in the News Feed for digital filth: climate denialism, alternative cures, antivax propaganda and all sorts of other fake news.

Facebook’s threat to block real journalism from its properties is simply an attempt to bully the Australian government and legislature. It is also a clear attempted exercise of their massive, anticompetitive market power. I suspect the Australian authorities won’t be easily intimidated, David Chavern, President and CEO of the US-based News Media Alliance, told The Australian.

And without quality news and information, all of Facebook’s problems with misinformation would just become much worse. They would be taking away the only real balance for all the crazy rumors and conspiracy theories that they deliver.

David Swan

It is another in a long string of displays of corporate hypocrisy and market power from Silicon Valley tech giants. Just a week earlier, Uber and Lyft threatened to shut down their services in California in response to new legislation that would require them to reclassify drivers as employees – and managed to get away with it. If governments continue to back down from these threats I fear there is no hope to stop this accumulation of power in private hands, unaccountable to the general public while they rewrite the economy and society to fit their needs and maximize profits.

This particular issue has long been controversial. The main argument against direct payments to news organizations is that Google and Facebook provide them with free traffic and global reach, far above what they would get in the past in print from or now as standalone sites – therefore it is newspapers that should pay Google and Facebook for distribution, not the other way around. Personally, despite this reasoning, I have recently begun to favor the opposite approach. In the end it is a matter of value: if we agree that journalism is of great importance to a democratic society, we should be ready to support it against countervailing market forces, or watch democratic values erode until they become meaningless. Maybe there are better solutions than redirecting money from tech giants, but for now I see few alternatives. Government subsidies would be problematic, and expecting people to subscribe to dozens of publications or to purchase access on an article-by-article basis seems unfeasible.

It will be interesting to see how the situation evolves if Facebook does follow through on its threat in Australia: will people abandon reputable news sites or seek them out on the open web? Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I think people will be frustrated with Facebook and will start visiting news sites (or their apps) directly – and publishers will start realizing they were not that reliant on Facebook to begin with.

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