Is the news our friend?

March 2, 2021
Rachel Ellison

There has been a lot to update in February…

… the Media Code has been amended and passed, Google and media publishers came to the table to negotiate around News Showcase, and Facebook and the Australian government played chicken with the fate of news on social media, with Facebook banning Australians from seeing and sharing local and international news. 

Facebook news is back on now but why did it happen and what happens next?

The Code

See Datisan’s summary of the proposed code, opinions on the code and the events leading up to the Facebook Australian news ban on this page here.

Many people were more worried about Google turning off its local services than worrying about Facebook, based on communication in the market prior to February 17 2021, even though Facebook had released statements over the past six months that made it clear they didn’t think the code was workable.

But the social media company caused alarm with what was seen as a sudden decision in mid-February to block news on its platform across Australia after the House of Representatives passed the draft law. 

Facebook News Blackout

Facebook restricted access to news in Australia the same day as the announcement, as they wanted the change in place prior to the code being passed.

They advised that news makes up less than four per cent of what people see in their feeds, but you’d likely notice a difference when logging into the social network.

Will Easton, Managing Director, Facebook ANZ said,

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between Facebook and news publishers.

And mistakenly, the blackout also cut access, at least temporarily, to government pandemic, public health and emergency services, fueling outrage. Facebook’s justification for including non-news pages was that the proposed law has a broad definition of news.

Easton also said,

As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted.

You can read more of that initial statement here.

Facebook’s victory came at the cost of a public relations disaster. Either accidentally or otherwise, its news ban had a chaotic public effect, blocking access to important information on emergency services pages in the midst of bushfires in Western Australia and flooding in Queensland.

After a week of what we suppose was furious negotiation and Google Meet or Zoom calls, Facebook advised that the platform would reinstate news pages, as it also deals with media outlets to come to agreements.

Facebook said it would continue to negotiate deals with Australian publishers, as mentioned in many media reports, like this one from The Guardian.

Easton mentions in regards to the negotiations,

We are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognize the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.

The Verge describes the outpouring of public comment rather well, saying,

Of course, many critics were apoplectic that Facebook had taken this move, calling it a vile act of censorship, unchecked greed, and destruction of the public sphere.

Certainly the execution of the ban left something to be desired. Rather than building a blacklist of news sites to restrict, Facebook tried using its machine learning systems to identify news publishers, and the systems went predictably haywire.

…..
What was negotiated?

The amendments to the code which were negotiated between Facebook and the Australian government were outlined in a release from the Australian government.

Frydenberg and Facebook confirmed that the two sides agreed to amendments to the proposed legislation. The changes would give digital platforms one month’s notice before they are formally designated under the code. That would give those involved more time to broker agreements before they are forced to enter binding arbitration arrangements.

The New York Times notes that this appears to give Facebook more time to strike deals, similar to those reached by Google in the last couple of weeks. Campbell Brown, Facebook vice president for news partnerships said,

The  government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.

So who won?

In the public forum, Facebook maybe didn’t realise how this would look and impact, you know, the users of its platform. Many went on to say that Facebook was implementing ‘bully tactics’.

The ABC noted that both sides think they won, as they both gained concessions.

Josh Frydenberg, the Liberal party’s deputy leader who spearheaded the new law, said this was a significant milestone.

This legislation will help level the playing field and see Australian news media businesses paid for generating original content.

Source: abc.net.au

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says the law will address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook.

According to Frydenburg, the amendments will strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers in obtaining appropriate remuneration for the use of their content by the digital platforms.

The ABC did well promoting its news app in the wake of uncertainty about the flow of news, becoming the number one downloaded free app in the Apple Store within 48 hours of the blackout

But the ABC also noted that it might be harder for small digital players to start news websites. Gathering an audience will be more expensive and take longer without Facebook. Read more here

Jeff Jarvis, a journalism expert from the City University of New York, said media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who owns most of Australia’s major newspapers through his U.S-based News Corp, is the biggest winner while smaller titles and new media startups would suffer most.

Murdoch’s media empire was seen as a driving force behind the Australian legislation, which he noted includes a requirement for media companies to earn at least $150,000 AUD in revenue to be eligible.

Where was Google in all of this?

Google also suggested initially that it would have to pull its search engine from the country if the law came into force, but it later walked back its plans. Instead, Google chose to ink deals with media organisations to pay them for news content via News Showcase.

Source Giphy

Read Datisan’s summary of the News Showcase launch here.

Melanie Silva, Managing Director of Google Australia published a new open letter addressing the issue, which can be viewed here.

Our consistent ask has been that we avoid legislative proposals that would break the fundamental principle of the web – that it should be free and easy to link to websites. By establishing a program to pay news publishers, News Showcase offers a constructive path forward.

Having mounted a strong PR and communication strategy about the potential withdrawal of services, Google was able to successfully negotiate with many additional publishers post-launch, while also being able to leverage and enjoy the concessions Facebook as negotiated.

Professor Leaver, Curtin University, speaking to the ABC confirms this by saying,

Google comes out of the Facebook news ban looking good.

 

What about public opinion?

The question regarding whether this will have long-term adverse impacts to Google or Facebook is yet to be seen but a number of opinions were published about this in the past two weeks, even though the issue has left the main news cycle for the moment.

Facebook’s decision to block access to pages like 1800Respect, the WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services and the Bureau of Meteorology was unnecessary, heavy-handed and will damage its reputation, according to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Michael Tibbles, digital media manager, MediaSmiths, as quoted in AdNews, said

While the move by Facebook to remove Australian news is a highly risky PR move, it is unlikely to result in a loss of significant ad revenue in the short term.

Rebecca Wilson, CEO of Starts at 60, wrote a widely-shared opinion piece for Mumbrella that highlighted her worry that the over 60s voice has been silenced by this brinkmanship between the government and the media platforms.

The Urban List founder and CEO Susannah George welcomed the news of a restored Facebook and felt that the intent from Facebook to support small and local publishers was heartening, when speaking with AdNews.

Diversity of voices is vital to Australia’s cultural fabric – diversity driven by the home-grown, digital-first publishers that champion our small businesses, events, tourism and arts scene.

Pedestrian.tv had a strong reaction to losing the opportunity to share their news on the social platform (some swearing here). But thankfully the Betoota Advocate wasn’t caught up in the chaos.

……

I still have questions…

So do we. Some of which are:

  • Do the last minute concessions mean the code may never be used?
  • Are the big end of town the real winners? Did regional and independent media organisations miss out?
  • Could the news get blocked again?
  • Should media regulation be rethought completely? 
  • Why not just increase tax requirements on international digital businesses?

As we have said in our summary of the code at the beginning of February (which you can read here) , there are a lot of moving parts to this story. Datisan is keeping tabs on it and will update our blog as more information comes to hand.

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TLDR: Facebook bans news in response to negotiations breaking down around the News Media Bargaining Code, then turns the news back on once the code is amended. Google and Facebook negotiate with publishers and no one is sure what the code will look like in practice yet.


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