Facebook has threatened to remove Australians’ ability to post news content to its platforms if the federal government doesn’t back down on a proposed code of conduct that would force companies like Facebook and Google to pay local news outlets.
“Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram,” a statement from Australia and New Zealand managing director Will Easton said.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which developed the code, quickly hit back.
“Ill-timed and misconceived,” was how it described Facebook’s threat in a statement.
ACCC chair Rod Sims said: “Facebook already pays some media for news content.
“The code simply aims to bring fairness and transparency to Facebook and Google’s relationships with Australian news media businesses.”
So, what do the changes entail? Why is Facebook reluctant to comply? Could this really go ahead?
So, what’s actually been proposed by the ACCC?
Under the ACCC’s proposed code, Facebook and Google would be required to bargain and reach agreements with Australian news outlets.
Part of this would require them to pay for-profit news companies for use of their content.
That would be a world first.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced in April that the code would be mandatory.
“Australia makes laws that advance our national interest,” he said in response to Facebook’s statement this week.
“We don’t respond to coercion or heavy-handed threats, wherever they come from.”
The government says the code would simply bring the industry into line with other industries that operate in Australia.
Former ACCC chairman Allan Fels told the ABC that the code of conduct was “not ambitious, it’s not a tax.”
“Codes are applied already [in other industries] … and they work fairly well to even up bargaining power,” he said.
“So the digital platforms should be grateful if they can get out of this by paying some revenues to companies.”
What has Facebook said?
Facebook’s Mr Easton said removing news from its platform was “not our first choice — it is our last”.
He said the ACCC’s proposal “defies logic” and would “hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector”.
“News represents a fraction of what people see in their News Feed and is not a significant source of revenue for us,” Mr Easton said.
Instead, he said, it’s Australian media outlets that benefit from Facebook.
Users clicked on Australian news items shared on Facebook 2.3 billion times in the first half of 2020, Mr Easton said, generating some $200 million for Australian media outlets.
Facebook claims the ACCC’s proposal “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet and ignores important facts about the value publishers receive from Facebook.”
But Belinda Barnet, a senior media lecturer at Swinburne University, reckons: “It’s a bit disingenuous to say they [Facebook] only make a small amount of revenue from news.
“All the data they harvest around news consumption as well as advertising revenue … behavioural data that they generate around the consumption of news content, for example your political preferences, socioeconomic background.
“Facebook is in the business of data harvesting. In giving up news content completely, they are giving up a part of their business,” she said.
Experts say Facebook and Google are worried authorities overseas could take Australia’s lead.
“Facebook would be worried that the government is setting a precedent that others could follow,” Mr Fels said.
The ABC contacted Facebook for an interview but the company declined to comment.
How could my Facebook experience change?
If you’re on Facebook, then you’re among the 13 million Australians on the platform every month.
That’s around half of us.
Given that 39 per cent of Australia gets news from Facebook, Dr Barnet said the removal of news from the platform “unfortunately will have an impact on our consumption of news as a nation”.
“Facebook is very clearly willing to put that on the table … they’re willing to do that in order to get their way,” she said.
And some are worried it would see the proliferation of fake news and disinformation — already a major problem on Facebook.
“It would certainly make the situation [of fake news] a lot worse if you remove legitimate and fact-checked news content,” Dr Barnet said.
“If Facebook follows through with this threat, it will potentially lead to very uncompelling content on both Facebook and Instagram,” wrote Rob Nicholls, director of the UNSW Business School Cybersecurity and Data Governance Research Network.
“How are you going to share interesting information with family and friends without being able to put links into posts?”
What is likely to happen next?
Professor Terry Flew of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) told the ABC that while Australia is a small part of tech companies’ revenue, their bigger concern is the “possibility of this legislation extending from Australia into other jurisdictions, where it might start to significantly impact upon their global business”.
So, the standoff between Facebook and Google and the federal government will continue.
Google previously said it would be forced to make its services “dramatically worse” if the government follows through with the changes.
“That’s what all this, the campaign by Google, the tantrum by Facebook today, is all designed to make the ACCC back down,” said Dr Barnet.
But the Australian government also seems unlikely to back down.
“So far, the government has shown a strong commitment to following through on the ACCC’s recommendations,” said Professor Flew of QUT.
It is “highly likely” that the legislation would get voted through Parliament with the support of Labor and the Greens, he said.
“The tech giants have a history of making heavy-handed threats on public policy issues,” Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told the ABC.
“But we’re not going to be distracted by that.”
“As the ACCC and the government work to finalise the draft legislation, we hope all parties will engage in constructive discussions,” Mr Sims said.