Facebook has blocked Australian users of its platform from reading and sharing local and international news, stepping up its campaign against government plans to force tech giants to pay publishers for their topical content.
“The bill fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and the publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook said in a blog post announcing the move.
“This left us with a difficult choice: to try to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or to stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we choose the latter.
Australia is trying to get tech companies, including Facebook and Google, to pay for the news which is widely shared on their sites, as the advertising revenue that once supported by publishers evaporates. They would be required by law to enter into agreements with media companies or charge them fees.
Google has threatened to pull its search services out of Australia, but has also started to strike revenue-sharing deals with publishers.
Facebook insists that its relationship with the news industry is fundamentally different.
“Publishers readily choose to post news on Facebook because it allows them to sell more subscriptions, expand their audience and increase ad revenue,” he said, noting that in 2020, the platform generated 5.1 billion referrals which grossed around A $ 407 million ($ 315m) for publishers.
The platform claimed that what it described as a “value exchange” was working in favor of publishers.
Facebook’s sudden decision to block news content sparked outrage as some government and emergency response pages, including health officials, fire departments and police, also became obscure. Facebook’s own page was also affected.
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who earlier said he had had a “constructive discussion” with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the law, condemned the platform’s move.
“Facebook was wrong,” he told reporters. “Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were brutal and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,”
Facebook watchers and media analysts accused the company, which made $ 29.2 billion in net profit in 2020, of intimidation.
“Facebook’s actions today can best be understood as an aggressive lobbying effort,” US journalist Judd Legum wrote on Twitter. “This shows the Australian government that it is ready to follow through on the ban. It’s hard to reconcile this meaningless approach with the company’s supposed commitment to freedom of expression.
During a global pandemic, Australians cannot access state health services on Facebook. On a flood and fire alert day in Queensland and WA, Australians cannot access the Bureau of Meteorology on Facebook.
The Morrison government must solve this problem today.
– Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) February 17, 2021
1800RESPECT was blocked on Facebook this morning – denying surviving victims of VF and sexual assault access to critical information. Irresponsible by FB. Cth needs to act quickly to fix it. It’s more than just advertising revenue. There are, literally, lives at stake.
– Gabrielle Williams, MP (@GabbyWilliamsMP) February 17, 2021
Google, meanwhile, has made deals with publishers in the UK, Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina for its Google News Showcase product, and on Wednesday struck a landmark global deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal and two-thirds of Australia’s major city newspapers, to develop a subscription platform and share advertising revenue. News Corp has also been criticized in Australia for its domination of the information industry.
Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said Facebook’s claim that this is a voluntary platform where news editors willingly share their content “misrepresents” the relationship.
“Most publishers feel pressured to be on Facebook,” she wrote, referring to five years of research not funded by the platform and undertaken by the center. “They don’t like the asymmetry of the relationship, they don’t like the requirement to go through an intermediary without having access to even negligible data.”
(1/3) Wow, @Facebook, you have no conscience. To protect yourself in Australia, you close ALL news sites, inc @rapplerdotcom. Yet you allow government propaganda sites that journalists risk their lives fighting to publish! If you don’t fix this, it will impact elex 2022.
– Maria Ressa (@mariaressa) February 18, 2021
Remember when Facebook allowed the Christchurch Massacre to be broadcast for 29 minutes?
– Max Walden (@maxwalden_) February 18, 2021
Facebook, which has long been criticized for allowing disinformation to flourish on its platforms, now finds itself blocking news media that provided fact-checking on fake news.
“No one is taking advantage of this move because Facebook will now be a platform for disinformation to spread rapidly without equilibrium,” said a spokesperson for Nine, an Australian television station. “This action proves once again their monopoly position and their unreasonable behavior.”