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'Drastic action': Could the Facebook block of Australian news become an issue in other countries?

A proposed law in Australia would compel internet companies to pay news organisations.

EARLIER THIS WEEK, Facebook blocked users from sharing and accessing Australian news after a law was proposed requiring them to pay news sites for their content. 

The bill was given the green light by the Australia House of Representatives on Wednesday and could be approved by the Senate next week.

Facebook said this proposed law fails to recognise the “fundamental nature of the relationship between our platform and publishers”. 

So how did this happen? And could it become an issue in Ireland or other countries down the line? 

What happened this week? 

On Thursday, Facebook blocked users from accessing and sharing Australian news in response to the proposed law.

The Australia House of Representatives on Wednesday night passed a bill that would make Facebook and Google pay Australian media companies fair compensation for the journalism the platforms link to.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, the Australian minister responsible for the proposed News Media Bargaining Code, had a phone conversation with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg after the block began on Thursday and again yesterday.

“We talked through their remaining issues & agreed our respective teams would work through them immediately. We’ll talk again over the weekend,” Frydenberg tweeted on Friday.

“I reiterated Australia remains committed to implementing the code,” he added.

Frydenberg maintains that Facebook had been having constructive negotiations with Australian media on pay deals immediately before the surprise blockade.

The legislation must be passed by the Senate before it becomes law. It will be debated from next Monday in the Senate and is expected to be made law by the end of the week.

Google accounts for 53% of Australian online advertising revenue and Facebook 23%, according to Frydenberg.

Should other countries be worried by this?

Experts in the field say this could become an issue in other countries in the future, particularly in the EU. 

Michael Foley, the vice chair of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) ethics council, said the union has always been concerned about large social media companies “soaking up advertising” online. 

“It was Facebook who have had so many problems dealing with fake news, but weirdly when it came to real news, they were able to ban it straight off,” he said. 

“I’ve a feeling that what Facebook are doing is using this as a sledgehammer. I think it’s a warning to the rest of the world.”

“If they can win in Australia and sort of force the Australian government not to bring in this regulation – will it have an impact elsewhere?”

He said this could result in other countries pulling back and realising the impacts of regulating for these companies to pay for news. 

However, he doesn’t believe the Australian government will retract the proposed law.

“I don’t think [Facebook is] going to win. I think the Australians are going to have to deal with it and they’re not going to be able to give in.” 

He said it’s “very dangerous” for one social media company to be in a position to interfere with the role of news media and democracies. 

But if everyone starts putting in legislation, there’s nowhere for them to go.

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday urged Facebook to lift its block for Australian users and return to the negotiation table with news publishers.

Morrison also warned that other countries would follow his government’s example in making digital companies pay for journalism.

Researcher at the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University, Dr Eileen Culloty, said she was surprised by the “really drastic action” taken by Facebook.

“Particularly because we’re still in a pandemic when you hear criticism about misinformation and conspiracy theories… all [Facebook's] support for journalism and support for Covid-19 information, it doesn’t make sense for them to pull the plug like this,” she told TheJournal.ie.  

“This is all part of a much bigger issue about the failure of regulating online markets in general. Facebook and Google have been allowed to totally dominate the online market.” 

She said that from Facebook’s point of view, there are “some legitimate arguments” about which media should be compensated.

“These are complicated questions and we don’t want Google or Facebook defining those outcomes of what determines a news publisher,” she said. 

She said this block is a signal to other countries and “particularly to Europe” where similar measures are set to be in place across the EU under the Copyright Directive.

What have other countries done, and what is Ireland doing?

In April last year, EU member states gave the green light to the Copyright Directive in a step aimed at making tech giants more responsible for paying creatives, musicians and news outlets more fairly for their work online.

A number of groups including the European Alliance of News Agencies argued at the time that this would provide an opportunity to further develop quality news services and enables it to compete more fairly with tech giants.

This directive is partly aimed at strengthening the “bargaining position of press publishers when they negotiate the use of their content by online services”, the European Commission said.

It also establishes the right for press publishers to seek remuneration for their content from online platforms. 

This is due to be brought into law in Ireland later this year by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar.

A spokesperson for his department said: “The Tánaiste agrees that digital platforms making money from the sharing of high quality journalistic content produced by others should make a contribution to the cost of producing that content.

“The new European Copyright Directive seeks to achieve a fair balance between the interests of all stakeholders and work is underway to transpose the Directive into Irish law in time for the June deadline.”

Australia’s proposed law would be the first of its kind, but other governments are also pressuring Google, Facebook and other internet companies to pay news outlets and other publishers for material.

Google and a group of French publishers have announced a framework agreement for the company to negotiate licensing deals with individual publishers. The company has deals with outlets including the newspaper Le Monde and the weekly magazine l’Obs.

Last year, Facebook announced it would pay US news organisations including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and USA Today for headlines. No financial details were released.

In Spain, Google shut down its news website after a 2014 law required it to pay publishers.

What has Google done? 

Google had initially threatened to make its search engine unavailable in Australia in response to the proposed legislation, which would create a panel to make pricing decisions on news. 

It has since responded by working out licencing content deals with major Australian media companies under its own News Showcase model.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp announced a wide-ranging deal with Google covering operations in the US and Britain as well as Australia.

Major Australian media organisation Seven West Media also reached a deal earlier in the week. Rival Nine Entertainment is reportedly close to its own pact, and state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp is in negotiations.

John McGahon, a Fine Gael Senator who has released statements about social platforms in the past, described the move from Facebook in Australia as a “bully boy tactic”.

“I think aside from what happened in Australia, Ireland should be pushing for more regulation of social media organisations,” he told TheJournal.ie. 

“They need to realise they’re not platforms and have to be treated as publishers.

“The move in Australia is very worrying and I really hope the Australian government won’t be intimidated by it. If Australia don’t take a stance now, who’s next?”

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He said the blocking of “essential information” leaves a “huge vacuum in Australia filled by Covid conspiracies and fake news”. 

Were just news sites blocked on Facebook?

No, other sites including Australian commercial and government communications pages were initially banned as well.

A Facebook company spokesperson said that government pages “should not be impacted” by this block of news organisations.

“The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.

“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. However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.” 

Australian fact-checking organisations AAP and AFP are Facebook fact-checking partners, but they cannot currently post about their work on the platform as they are blocked. 

TheJournal FactCheck unit is a partner of Facebook’s fact-checking programme. As the situation currently stands, Irish people living in Australia can no longer share TheJournal’s debunking work – or the work of any Irish news publisher – on Facebook.

A Facebook spokesperson said these articles – including those from TheJournal – will continue to appear for Australian users on content labelled as misinformation. 

“We will still label content that is identified by our partners and reduce the spread of the content, and a link to the fact checkers’ reports will be visible if accessed from the inform treatment,” the spokesperson said. 

Susan Daly, Managing Editor of Journal Media, said: “The stand-off between the government there and Facebook is fundamentally a row over digital revenue, but the message Facebook has just sent to news publishers is that trustworthy news content on their network is a non-essential.

“Facebook has loudly and frequently vowed in recent times to stamp out misinformation on its platform. If you accept that a key way to do this is to encourage and incentivise the spread of good information, then pulling the plug on that content clearly undermines that commitment.

“This is a crucial time for equipping people with the information that helps them to make good decisions. Stripping out trustworthy journalism leaves a space that is all too easily filled by misleading content. It is worrying that Facebook is happy to let this happen.” 

Nevan Riley, head of social at media relations company MediaConsult, said local and regional media in Ireland “rely heavily on Facebook” to reach their audience. 

From his experience as a consultant, he said that many publishers have been “over reliant on Facebook for a long time” and should look at developing other methods of making their content accessible – through email newsletters or WhatsApp groups. 

He said this should act as a “wake up call” for both news organisations and individual users to rely on Facebook less for their news. 

“This has shone a spotlight on Facebook’s dominance in the news industry,” Riley said. 

“Up until now, fake news on the platform has been balanced out by real news organisations so if you remove those from the platforms, that’s like removing the pin from the grenade.”  

What has Facebook said?

Facebook has called this a restriction on “publishers and people in Australia from sharing and viewing Australian and international news content” in response to the proposed law. 

“International publishers can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts can’t be viewed or shared by Australian audiences,” Facebook said. 

The company said its “global commitment to invest in quality news has not changed”.

“We will continue to invest in news and work directly with a wide range of publishers, both large and small to deliver value to their business.”

A spokesperson said this block “does not change our commitment to combat misinformation on Facebook and directing people to authoritative sources of information about important issues”. 

- Additional reporting by Press Association.

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