24 February 2021

Wired UK: “Facebook’s Australia news ban is the best decision it’s ever made”

But there’s a trickier tangle that taxation alone won’t unpick. For many, Facebook and Google are part of the mythical “open web” – one where hyperlinks can be freely posted on any website. That makes sense on, say, Wikipedia, but it does not make sense on Facebook and Google which, despite their scale and mission statements, are essentially closed advertising ecosystems. Sure, news organisations can choose to post articles and videos on Facebook. And in return, people on Facebook may play those videos and click on those links. Rarely, they might click on an advert on the news organisation’s website or pay to subscribe to that publication. Or, if you’re the Epoch Times, you can game Facebook’s engagement algorithm to transform yourself from a low-budget far-right newspaper founded by an obscure Chinese spiritual movement into one of the most-read publications on the planet. If Facebook prioritised social wellbeing over engagement, this wouldn’t have happened.

For years it has been clear that the web, which has been shaped in Facebook and Google’s image, is in no way open. Facebook is not a social network. Google is not a search engine. They are an advertising duopoly. In the US, more than half of advertising spend now goes to big digital platforms. In the UK, Amazon, Facebook and Google account for almost 70 per cent of digital advertising spend. If Facebook doesn’t want news on its platform, that’s Facebook’s prerogative. If Google wants to hand giant wads of cash to Rupert Murdoch to secure deeply troubling pay-to-play deals, that’s Google’s prerogative. It’s an irresistible tug-of-war: there would be no Facebook or Google without the terabytes of stuff we shout into the void every hour of every day. And yet, without Facebook and Google, there would be no void to shout into.

James Temperton

Almost six months after issuing the threat, Facebook followed through and blocked links to Australian news sites, not only in the country, but globally. The decision was reversed this week, as the two sides continue to negotiate in the coming months.

Facebook claims peoposed Australian law will threaten the open internet
Facebook claims this law will threaten the open internet, but in reality, it does little more than one saying you can’t drive a 50-ton truck down a highway without extra inspections and tolls. Photograph: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Naturally, there have been countless articles defending one or the other party in this conflict. This one captures an aspect that most commentators willfully ignore or misrepresent: neither Facebook nor Google are ‘the open web’! They are massive advertising companies, likely colluding to keep themselves at the top of the market at the expense of their much smaller and weaker competitors. Their algorithms for ad placements and link ranking are responsible for many of the links people visit online – the idealistic past image of the open web has little to do with it.

Facebook claims this law will threaten the open internet, but in reality, it does little more than one saying you can’t drive a 50-ton truck down a highway without extra inspections and tolls. In fact, if small media businesses were cars, Facebook’s revenue would make it a colossal vehicle, more massive than the Empire State Building. The political consensus in Australia recognizes that systems are unlikely to serve the public interest if they ignore such immense power imbalances.

Some commentators, including Tim Berners-Lee, have said the code undermines a fundamental web principle of linking freely. It’s true that it would regulate a business activity, distributing content, that is mostly done using a core web mechanism, linking. But describing this as a restriction on linking has it backwards. It’s the commercial acts that are being regulated, not the web mechanism. Countless laws could be described as restricting what websites may link to, including many copyright, privacy and fraud regulations. Nobody claims laws banning links to a phishing page make the web unworkable, because we all recognize it’s the fraud that’s being regulated, not the linking.

James Slezak

My cynical side suspects a heavy dose of covert protectionism behind never-ending arguments based on the holy ‘open web’ – the same arguments we hear whenever the European Union discusses privacy or other internet-related regulations. Had Facebook and Google been based anywhere else than in the United States, I expect far fewer people would have defended their business decisions against regulation from democratically elected governments. The same double-standard was apparent in the discussion about banning Donald Trump: as private companies, social networks are within their rights to expel bad actors from their platforms, but when another country wants to regulate their actions suddenly they should be exempt as exponents of the ‘open internet’!

Americans seem convinced that, because tech giants are American companies, only Americans have the right to criticize, regulate or tax them (or to choose to do none of these things) – ignoring that these companies have grown so large because they operate on a global level, and thus need to accept global responsibility for their massive influence. If other countries and communities are denied the means to shape the web to their local customs and needs, then it ceases to be an ‘open web’, becoming rather an ‘American’ one (as it has arguably been from the beginning). Whereas for the Chinese government tight control of online speech is an explicit policy, the US operates on an implicit assumption that the web should follow American rules and spread American values – and that the world should openly embrace them.

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