Facebook restricted news access in Australia, but who is really at fault?

The tech giant is battling our media monopoly to control what we see.

Credit: @barefootcommunications

It’s been a big news week Down Under. But a limited one for the actual news outlets, who have been gagged by the biggest social network in the world — in response to proposed new media bargaining laws by the Australian government.

Wait, what?

The Facebook pages of Australian news outlets, publishers and even some commercial retailers and socially-conscious travel companies (who are already suffering the huge financial blow of COVID-19) have no content available. The outlets can no longer post any content, and Australian users can no longer share any content that Zuckerberg’s conglomerate deems as ‘news’.

In the heat of the moment, Facebook also wiped charity pages and government emergency health and safety pages — but have since reinstated them.

It’s impacting international outlets, too.

Not only can we not access content from our national news outlets, we can’t see anything from international publishers either. So, Australian users lose Facebook access to their content — and international media companies lose their entire Australian Facebook readership.

But why?

This brings us back to those new media bargaining laws. They were proposed by the Australian government last year to ‘force major tech giants to pay Australian news outlets for their content’. In December, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) reported:

“The mandatory bargaining code is the result of many years of complaints from traditional media outlets that social media platforms benefit from the hard graft of journalists without paying a cent for it.”

Basically, the ‘world first’ regulations stipulate that digital platforms pay Australian news outlets for their content — arguing that their content is what drives millions of users to the platforms in the first place. In response, the digital platforms argue they drive a lot of readers to news stories that would otherwise be lost in the abyss — which is also true.

In a statement announcing their decision to restrict news access, Facebook said:

“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.”

Facebook’s not the only one in the legislative firing line. The code applies to Google, too. Just three weeks ago the search engine was threatening to leave the Australian-wide-web, but in an interesting (and personally — relieving) turn of events the legislation is now expected to pass this week.

The fallout

Naturally, a political decision of this magnitude means things are a little… well, political.

Stipulating that billion-dollar tech companies share their advertising profits with publishers amidst the rapid decline of newspapers is a noble move in theory. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The legislation has received a lot of criticism in Australia for helping ‘government-favoured’ website categories and harming ‘small and emerging players’. And it’s justified; Australia’s newspaper ownership is among the most concentrated in the world, with the overwhelming majority of our outlets owned by global media giant Rupert Murdoch. His company News Corp Australia controls 70% of our country’s print circulation.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd — who last year petitioned for a royal commission into Murdoch’s domination of our media and called the media mogul a ‘cancer on our democracy’ — says that Australian politicians are ‘frightened of the Murdoch media beast’ because of the ‘power he wields’.

Local and lesser-known publications stand to suffer the biggest blow now that their largest, most engaged audience pool has been ripped out from underneath them. The bargaining code doesn’t stipulate that all publishers are guaranteed profit — but that tech giants can ‘strike deals’ with publishers; the most powerful of which will have the most bargaining power.

Where balanced, quality content is concerned — Facebook, the facilitator of fake news, has a huge amount to answer for too. Sure — accepting Australia’s law would risk setting a precedent for the rest of the world. But surely they could afford it?

As as a writer who has come of age mourning the evaporation of attention spans, my preference will always skew in favour of journalists being compensated fairly. Perhaps not having algorithm-filtered, easy-access information at our fingertips will drive news-hungry users to seek out original, reputable sources

Looking at the global picture, could this be the start of a larger movement that sees all news outlets — big and small — demand to be fairly compensated for the value of their work? Industry officials in Europe and Canada have expressed support of the legislation, and some countries have set similar regulatory wheels in motion.

In any case, the thought of businesses not succumbing to Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm and advertising demands gives me a bit of satisfaction. Maybe because I like the idea of social media’s mindless-scroll-trap losing its grip, or maybe because it reminds me of that scene from Love Actually when Hugh Grant stands up to Billy Bob Thornton.

Plenty of big questions still remain —will they take out Instagram next? Will Google be forced to cough up for content in other countries? Will we start to boycott Murdoch’s media empire?

Between the agenda-fuelled outlets that publish our news and the powerful platforms that share them — it’s an unsettling reminder of how little control we have over what (and how) we access and consume. But perhaps it’s a reminder we all needed.

Let’s hope Australians can adapt and get behind the ‘small and emerging’ players to prevent more jobs from being lost — we’ve had enough of that already.

Thought pieces on relationships, human behaviour, gender and identity. Words in Huffington Post, Time Out, The Journal & Lifestyle Online. IG: @writeonbrand

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