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News organisations go silent on Facebook

Facebook has banned publishers and users in Australia from sharing or viewing both Australian and international news content in response to Australia’s proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.

Globally, posting and sharing news links from Australian publishers is also restricted on Facebook. The move happened overnight, with no warning.

Facebook’s position

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” said William Easton, Managing Director, Facebook Australia & New Zealand, in a news update.

“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. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

Google’s take

Google has responded differently. Kent Walker, SVP Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer, has said online that Google also has concerns about the proposed Australian law.

“The issue isn’t whether companies pay to support quality content; the issue is how. The law would unfairly require unknown payments for simply showing links to news businesses, while giving, to a favoured few, special previews of search ranking,” he said.

“Those aren’t workable solutions and would fundamentally change the internet, hurting the people and businesses who use it. But there are better ways, and we’re committed to making progress.”

Walker also said, “Our issue is absolutely not with paying news organisations — we’ve done this for many years. Today Google News Showcase is paying publishers, and supporting local journalism, in Australia and over a dozen countries.

“Through these partnerships, we are paying significant amounts to support news organisations large and small — with more to come.”

Google is willing to pay

News Corp announced on 17 February that it has partnered Google “to provide trusted journalism from its news sites around the world in return for significant payments by Google”. A number of News Corp publications will join the Google News Showcase, including Australian platforms such as The Australian and Sky News.

The three-year agreement includes the development of a subscription platform, ad revenue shared via Google’s ad technology services, the cultivation of audio journalism and investments in innovative video journalism by YouTube.

The Sydney Morning Herald broke a news story about its owner Nine the same day, revealing that Google has struck a five-year deal to pay Nine Entertainment Company more than A$30 million in cash annually for the use of its news content.

Facebook is not Google Search

Facebook points out that news publishers do not voluntarily provide the content that appears on Google Search, whereas publishers willingly do so on Facebook.

Easton argued that Facebook did not take content nor request it, and that the value exchange between Facebook and publishers is in favour of the publishers.

According to Easton, Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers to the tune of an estimated A$407 million, and news accounts for under 4% of what people see in their Facebook News Feed. 

Reactions and responses

Josh Frydenberg, Treasurer, Australia, tweeted that he had spoken to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. “He raised a few remaining issues with the government’s news media bargaining code and we agreed to continue our conversation to try to find a pathway forward,” he shared.

The buzz on Twitter has been about the collateral damage, especially during a pandemic. Many organisations which would not have been considered media outlets have also been targeted, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions,  Queensland Health, and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.

ABC News commits to accessibility

ABC News’ Managing Director David Anderson said in a statement online, “ABC News is Australia’s number one digital news service and the nation’s most trusted news outlet.

“The ABC’s digital news services will always remain free and accessible to all Australians on the ABC website and via the ABC News app, providing independent and reliable news, information and analysis.

“Despite key issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic having ongoing effects on all Australians, Facebook has today removed important and credible news and information sources from its Australian platform. 

“We will continue our discussions with Facebook today following this development.”

The Australian: Facebook’s own goal

Chris Griffith, Technology Reporter, The Australian, called the Facebook move an ‘own goal’ in an analysis of the move in the newspaper.

He said on Twitter: “Facebook’s action to ban not only news sites but some health news services, weather, indigenous media, charity, and utility sites shows it is both unreliable and unworthy as a channel for supplying important information to the public.”

Draft legislation for the Code was introduced by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) in July 2020, and applies initially to initially applies to Facebook NewsFeed and Google Search.

The draft Code would allow news media businesses to bargain individually or collectively with Google and Facebook over payment for the inclusion of news on their services.

The Code also includes a set of ‘minimum standards’ for:

  • Providing advance notice of changes to algorithmic ranking and presentation of news;
  • Appropriately recognising original news content; and
  • Providing information about how and when Google and Facebook make available user data collected through users’ interactions with news content.

As of December 2020, public submissions  on the draft with feedback about the Code have been shared by the ACCC at https://www.accc.gov.au/focus-areas/digital-platforms/news-media-bargaining-code/submissions-to-exposure-draft.

Read the Facebook statement at https://about.fb.com/news/2021/02/changes-to-sharing-and-viewing-news-on-facebook-in-australia/, and the Google statement at https://blog.google/products/news/what-people-are-saying-about-australias-proposed-news-media-bargaining-code/.

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