By Cat ZakrzewskiFeb. 18, 2021 at 2:31 p.m.
with Aaron Schaffer
Facebook’s decision to block the posting and sharing of Australian news highlights the platform’s vast influence over the media industry, raising the stakes in global regulators’ efforts to address its power.
The social network yesterday announced it would prevent users in Australia from viewing or sharing links to news articles, and also prohibit Australian news outlets from sharing news on their Facebook pages. Facebook’s brute force tactics come as it fights a proposed Australian law to force tech giants to pay for the platform to link to their news articles, which tech giants fear could become a precedent for other similar regulation around the globe.
But in taking that extreme step, the company highlighted how much power it has to sidestep regulations it doesn’t like. And that’s emboldening lawmakers who already believe there’s a case for Facebook to be broken up. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I), who led a 16-month investigation into competition in the tech industry, called the moves “the ultimate admission of monopoly power.
Blocking Australian news undermines the public commitments that Facebook has been making to regulators for years.
Under intense scrutiny for its privacy practices and potentially anticompetitive behavior, Facebook has responded with ad campaigns, op-eds and congressional testimony in which it repeatedly committed to work collaboratively with legislators on the future of Internet regulation. But its crackdown on news shows the company is only willing to do that when the regulation is on its own terms.
Experts warn that misinformation could fill the void in the absence of credible news outlets posting their content on Facebook, potentially undermining the social network’s promises to fight falsehoods.
Facebook has also frequently positioned itself as a defender of free speech, often arguing its preserving that principle when ignoring calls to remove dangerous, false or otherwise problematic content. But observers noted that blocking news directly contradicts that position, and shows the company is willing to adopt extreme tactics for business reasons.
Facebook has previously attempted to position itself as a friend to news publishers.
Facebook has made several moves to bolster its relationships with media companies amid intense scrutiny of the impact tech giants have had on the industry’s revenue. The company in 2019 launched a dedicated “News” tab and paid some publishers for stories that appeared there, including from The Washington Post. The social network that year also made a $300 million commitment to local news organizations. The company has also been investing in partnerships with news outlets such as the Associated Press to fact check content on its site, amid a deluge of criticism for hosting misinformation about elections, public health and more.
But the action in Australia highlights how dependent publishers are on Facebook to push traffic to their websites – and how little Facebook believes it needs them. In a blog post announcing the news ban, Facebook said news content accounts for less than 4 percent of the content in people’s news feeds. Facebook said it last year generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth about AU$407 million.
“Facebook does not care about news or misinformation,” tweeted Emily Bell, a professor at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. “It cares about perception.”
William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia & New Zealand, argued the proposed law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.” Tech giants argued the law would remove their autonomy to develop commercial relationships, and protest that it would use binding arbitration to determine the amount they should pay for news.
There was significant collateral damage from the Facebook ban.
Facebook said it would continue to fight misinformation and ensure that key health authorities, like its coronavirus information center, remained online in Australia. But the ban on news pages inadvertently swept up some government websites that posted information about emergencies, fires and weather. (Facebook said it’s working to restore those pages).
Australian regulators responded with a stark warning to the company. “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a statement. “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”
Google took a very different strategy than Facebook – highlighting how the companies value news differently.
Google is aggressively fighting the proposal in Australia, and previously threatened to shut down its search engine in the country if the legislation passed. But the company instead walked back that statement and sought to broker deals with publishers, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, as my colleague Gerrit De Vynck reported.
“Google also appears to be more in tune with what the community wants and seems to take social responsibility somewhat more seriously than Facebook,” Johan Lidberg, a media professor at Monash University in Melbourne, told Gerrit.