A long-simmering battle between tech firms and the government of Australia became explosive yesterday when Facebook announced that it would block all linking of news publications inside the country. Not only has this change affected Australian and international news publishers, but Facebook’s wide net has also caught up governments, nonprofits, and basically anyone else in Australia who posts non-news content to the platform.
Australian lawmakers have been considering a bill that would require Internet platforms such as Google and Facebook (“digital platform corporations”) to negotiate in good faith with news outlets (“registered news business corporations”) to link to their content. If the outlets and the platforms can’t reach a deal on their own, they would have to go to baseball-style arbitration, where a neutral third-party arbitrator would decide whose offer is the better one.
The bill would at first apply to only two companies: Google and Facebook. Both, as you might expect, have expressed consistent opposition to the bill. (Microsoft, operator of remote second-place search engine Bing—which captures between 2 and 3 percent of the market—does not oppose the rules that would apply to its largest competitor.)
After months of complaint, Facebook took the nuclear option on Wednesday, blocking all Australian users from sharing links either from Australian or international sources and blocking everyone else in the world from sharing any links to any Australian news sources.
At a high level, the dispute is not unlike the cable blackouts US consumers are all too used to experiencing. When two parties can’t agree, each one points the finger at the other and tells consumers to blame the other guy for the inconvenience. Meanwhile, consumers are stuck in the middle, facing all the harm. And when the fight is between the world’s largest online platforms and an entire country, the stakes are high.
Apparently everything is “news”
Facebook’s universal block turned out to be as blunt an instrument as you could imagine, and for several hours Wednesday it blocked basically all links from being shared in Australia.
The ban hit not only news outlets but also a wide range of other websites and organizations inside Australia. City, state, and national government pages, including departments of health that communicate with the public about the pandemic and weather services that warn about fire hazards, were blocked for several hours before being restored. Facebook even suspended its own page for a while.
Nonprofits were also affected, according to Bloomberg News. Pages for food banks, domestic violence shelters, the Australia Council of Trade Unions, and a wildlife preservation group were all caught up in the ban, as well as pages for some politicians and emergency services departments.
“Government Pages should not be impacted by today’s announcement,” a Facebook spokesperson told Bloomberg. “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.”
“Arrogant and disappointing”
Facebook’s actions were “as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in—of course—a Facebook post. “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.
“We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament” as the bill heads to a vote, Morrison added. “I encourage Facebook to constructively work with the Australian Government, as Google recently demonstrated in good faith.”
Google in January threatened to exit Australia rather than pay to link to news content. Earlier this week, however, Google made a deal with News Corp—media mogul Richard Murdoch’s international company—to pay “significant” sums for access to News Corp’s US, UK, and Australian news outlets.
Australian news outlets—the entities the bill is theoretically designed to boost and protect—were similarly displeased.
“Despite key issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic having ongoing effects on all Australians, Facebook has today removed important and credible news and information sources from its Australian platform,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s managing director said in a written statement. “We will continue our discussions with Facebook today following this development.”
The NT News, a regional paper, was more blunt. The cover for its Thursday issue reads: “FEBRUARY 18, 2021. THE DAY FACEBOOK WENT TO WAR WITH AUSTRALIA.”