Australians woke to empty news feeds today after Facebook blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.
The move is a response to Australia’s proposed Media Bargaining law, which forces tech companies like Facebook and Google to negotiate with news providers to feature their content.
Those in favour of the law say the rules are needed to ‘protect public interest journalism’ by making sure outlets are paid for content social media and search engine users read and share.
An 18-month inquiry had been held by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, finding there was an imbalance of power between platforms and companies that threatened the news businesses.
But industry giants Google and Facebook, which take a combined 81% of online advertising in Australia, strongly oppose the rule, arguing that it does not fully comprehend the relationship between tech companies and news outlets.
The code would create an arbitration panel to set a binding price for news in situations where Google and Facebook do not reach deals with media businesses whose original journalism they link to.
Facebook’s decision was swiftly criticised by news producers and lawmakers, many of whom pointed out that official health and meteorology pages had also been scrubbed during the coronavirus pandemic and at the height of Australia’s summer bushfire season.
The changes made by Facebook both wiped clean pages operated by news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharing Australian news.
Facebook’s move contrasted with Google, which in recent days has brokered deals with media groups, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, in response to the regulatory push.
Facebook will no longer allow people in Australia to read or share news on its platform, the media giant has said (file image)
The move is a response to the country’s proposed Media Bargaining law, which forces tech companies like Facebook and Google to negotiate with news providers to feature their content (pictured: A blank news site on Facebook)
The law ‘fundamentally misunderstands’ the relationship between tech platforms and publishers, Facebook said, adding that it has helped Australian publishers earn about AU$407 million last year through referrals (pictured: Another blank Australian news page on Facebook)
Facebook has banned its own page from social media (pictured) during its war on Australian news
Google has also threatened to shut down its search engine in the country to avoid ‘unworkable’ content laws.
Facebook also seemingly blundered by banning its own page from social media. Along with government health pages, rescue services and every reputable news outlet’s Facebook pages, the multi billion-dollar company’s social media page was also void of all content on Thursday morning.
The page, which was previously brimming with content about Facebook’s latest news and achievements, simply read: ‘No posts yet.’
Australia’s Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has now insisted the government will not back down after Facebook banned news content – and said the publisher could either abide by Australia’s laws or leave the country.
FACEBOOK’S CHANGES TO NEWS IN AUSTRALIA
Facebook has restricted publishers and social media users in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.
What does this mean for Australian news organisations?
Australian news organisations will be restricted from sharing or posting any content on Facebook Pages
Admins will still be able to access Page insights and Creator Studio on their Facebook pages
Facebook said they will continue to provide access to other standard services, including data tools and CrowdTangle
What does this mean for international news organisations?
International news organisations can still post on Facebook but Australian users will not be able to see the content or share it
What does this mean for Australian Facebook users?
Australian Facebook users will not be able to view or share Australian or international news content
What does this mean for international Facebook users?
International Facebook users will not be able to view or share Australian news content on Facebook
Mr Fletcher said the government ‘will be proceeding’ with the code, which passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday night and looks set to pass the Senate and become law within days.
‘We want Google and Facebook to stay in Australia but we have been very clear that if you do business in Australia, you need to comply with the laws passed by the elected Parliament of this nation,’ he told the ABC on Thursday morning.
William Easton, managing director at Facebook Australia & New Zealand, wrote on the company’s website on Wednesday: ‘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.’
Facebook said the changes also mean that ‘international’ publishers can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts cannot be viewed or shared by Australian audiences.
Meanwhile its ‘international community’ will not be able to view or share Australian news content.
Earlier on Wednesday search engine giant Google signed a global deal to pay for content from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp after Australian media companies negotiated terms with the tech giant.
The Silicon Valley behemoth has been making hasty arrangements with Australian media firms after lawmakers said they would consider forcing Big Tech to pay for the content it reproduces on its platforms.
Facebook said Australian users will not be able read or share news content on the platform, and Australian news publishers will be restricted posting or sharing content on Facebook pages.
Earlier the country’s two largest free-to-air TV stations, Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment, reportedly struck deals with Google collectively worth A$60 million (£34 million) a year.
News Corp said it would receive ‘significant payments’ from Google in its three-year agreement, which wraps in the Times and the Sun newspapers in the UK, the Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the US, and Sky News TV channel in Australia.
The deal spans audio and video and News Corp will also get an ad revenue share from Google.
News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson thanked Australian officials in a statement, saying they ‘have stood firm for their country and for journalism’.
Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed earlier on Wednesday that the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation was also in negotiations and planned to spend any Google revenue on regional journalism.
Australia has claimed an early win in a protracted licensing battle with Google as the internet giant struck reportedly generous deals with big and small media companies to pay for news
The move is a response to the country’s proposed Media Bargaining law, which forces tech companies like Facebook and Google to negotiate with news providers to feature their content
‘There are negotiations going on with all the major players and the minor players at the moment,’ Mr Frydenberg said.
‘This will help sustain public interest journalism in this country for years to come.’
Mr Frydenberg said ‘none of these deals would be happening’ if not for proposed legislation to create a so-called News Media Bargaining Code.
Politicians were debating amended legislation to create the code in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The code would create an arbitration panel to set a binding price for news in cases where Google and Facebook failed to reach deals with media companies whose original journalism they linked to.
‘Everything that I have heard from parties, both in the news media business and in terms of digital platforms, is that these are generous deals,’ Mr Frydenberg said.
‘These are fair deals. These are good deals. These are good deals for the Australian media businesses.’
Google and Facebook, which take a combined 81% of online advertising in Australia, have condemned the code as unworkable.
Google says it might make its search engine unavailable in Australia if the code is introduced.
Facebook said it might block Australians from sharing news if the platform has to pay for news.
Mr Frydenberg said after weekend talks with Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet, and its subsidiary Google, that he was convinced the platforms ‘do want to enter into these commercial arrangements’.
‘We have held the line and held it strongly,’ Mr Frydenberg said.
‘And the digital giants have been left in no doubt about the … government’s resolve.’
Google confirmed it was ‘in discussions with publishers large and small’. It did not provide News Corp deal terms.
News Corp signed a three-year deal for its content with Google on Wednesday. The sum paid by the tech giant was not disclosed but Rupert Murdoch’s outfit said it would recieve ‘significant payments’
Australia’s two largest free-to-air television broadcasters have struck deals collectively worth A$60 million (£34 million) a year with Google, according to media reports
Facebook is also seeking news deals, but said it did not have ‘anything to confirm at this time’.
The Australian deals with Google are being negotiated under Google’s own model, News Showcase.
The company has reached pay deals with more than 450 publications globally since it launched News Showcase in October.
The Australian deals dwarf the $76 million (£55 million) Google will split between 121 publishers in France over three years, which averages $209,000 (£150,815) a year per publisher.
Though specifics of the Australian deals have not been disclosed, smaller outlets that inked Google deals last year ahead of their larger rivals said they were approached individually by the US company and asked to present their own valuation methods for content that would appear on Google’s ‘Showcase’ news platform.
That contrasts with the French negotiations, which were conducted on behalf of publishers by the Alliance de la presse d’information generale (APIG), a lobby group representing most major French publishers.
Unlike the Australian law, through which the government could intervene if the parties cannot reach a deal, the French rules, enacted under a recent European Union law, require only that Big Tech platforms open talks with publishers seeking payment.
‘The context of the (Australian) bargaining was very much one in which the government legislation was putting pressure on the digital platforms to come to the table, and that has strengthened the hand of publishers and contributed to these outcomes,’ said Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation, an academic-focused website that signed a Google deal last year.
Separately, the Reuters news agency, a division of Thomson Reuters Corp, struck a deal with Google in January, becoming the first global news provider to Google News Showcase.
IN FULL: FACEBOOK’S EXPLANATION FOR STOPPING NEWS FOR AUSTRALIAN USERS
By William Easton, Managing Director, Facebook Australia & New Zealand
In response to Australia’s proposed new Media Bargaining law, Facebook will restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.
The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. 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.
This discussion has focused on US technology companies and how they benefit from news content on their services. We understand many will ask why the platforms may respond differently. The answer is because our platforms have fundamentally different relationships with news. Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue.
In fact, and as we have made clear to the Australian government for many months, the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favor of the publishers — which is the reverse of what the legislation would require the arbitrator to assume. Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million.
For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal. News makes up less than 4% of the content people see in their News Feed. Journalism is important to a democratic society, which is why we build dedicated, free tools to support news organisations around the world in innovating their content for online audiences.
Over the last three years we’ve worked with the Australian Government to find a solution that recognizes the realities of how our services work. We’ve long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations. Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.
We were prepared to launch Facebook News in Australia and significantly increase our investments with local publishers, however, we were only prepared to do this with the right rules in place. This legislation sets a precedent where the government decides who enters into these news content agreements, and ultimately, how much the party that already receives value from the free service gets paid. We will now prioritise investments to other countries, as part of our plans to invest in new licensing news programs and experiences.
Others have also raised concern. Independent experts and analysts around the world have consistently outlined problems with the proposed legislation. While the government has made some changes, the proposed law fundamentally fails to understand how our services work.
Unfortunately, this means people and news organisations in Australia are now restricted from posting news links and sharing or viewing Australian and international news content on Facebook. Globally, posting and sharing news links from Australian publishers is also restricted. To do this, we are using a combination of technologies to restrict news content and we will have processes to review any content that was inadvertently removed.
For Australian publishers this means:
- They are restricted from sharing or posting any content on Facebook Pages
- Admins will still be able to access other features from their Facebook Page, including Page insights and Creator Studio
- We will continue to provide access to all other standard Facebook services, including data tools and CrowdTangle
For international publishers this means:
- They can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts can’t be viewed or shared by Australian audiences
For our Australian community this means:
- They cannot view or share Australian or international news content on Facebook or content from Australian and international news Pages
For our international community this means:
- They cannot view or share Australian news content on Facebook or content from Australian news Pages
The changes affecting news content will not otherwise change Facebook’s products and services in Australia. We want to assure the millions of Australians using Facebook to connect with friends and family, grow their businesses and join Groups to help support their local communities, that these services will not change.
We recognise it’s important to connect people to authoritative information and we will continue to promote dedicated information hubs like the COVID-19 Information Centre, that connects Australians with relevant health information. Our commitment to remove harmful misinformation and provide access to credible and timely information will not change. We remain committed to our third-party fact-checking program with Agence France-Presse and Australian Associated Press and will continue to invest to support their important work.
Our global commitment to invest in quality news also has not changed. We recognise that news provides a vitally important role in society and democracy, which is why we recently expanded Facebook News to hundreds of publications in the UK.
We hope that in the future the Australian government will recognise the value we already provide and work with us to strengthen, rather than limit, our partnerships with publishers.