Facebook has been accused of using the “nuclear option” in its conflict with the Australian government over a new media bargaining code, which would require Google and Facebook to pay for Australian media content.
On Feb. 18, shared news content was suddenly removed from Australian feeds after legislation entered parliament. The Facebook pages of media sites, including Devex’s, were displayed in Australia as having “No posts yet.” But the ban also impacted government health authorities, the Bureau of Meteorology, and nonprofits and NGOs.
The Australian Council for International Development, CBM Australia, The Crawford Fund, Oxfam Australia, Save the Children Australia and WWF Australia were among the organizations caught in the crossfire, with their Facebook pages also showing no posts.
“It’s really devastating to be cut off from our 160,000 supporters who follow the Save the Children Australia Facebook page,” Paul Ronalds, CEO at Save the Children Australia, said.
“Save the Children has come to rely on the platform to communicate with our supporters and members of the wider Australian community. We also use Facebook as an important fundraising tool to reach generous supporters who want to support the world’s most vulnerable children.”
Once a user is signed out of their account, all pages and content become visible again to Australian audiences suggesting the block is based on account details rather than geolocation. This also allows for an analysis of third party content removed.
For ActionAid Australia, links to articles on climate change activist Vanessa Nakate and Invasion Day rallies were removed from feeds. World Vision had an article on COVID-19 vaccine rollouts in the Pacific removed, along with links to a story that aired on Australian television program The Project. An article on a World Vision ambassador remained.
The story so far
In April 2020, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was asked by the government to develop a mandatory code of conduct to “address bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms, specifically Google and Facebook.”
These two organizations were identified as digital platforms that “display Australian news, without typically offering revenue-sharing arrangements to all news media businesses that produce this content.” LinkedIn, Reddit, Twitter, and other platforms where news can be similarly shared are excluded from the legislation as their advertising revenue does not meet specified thresholds. Public consultation began last July, with an initial bill introduced to parliament in December.
Under the proposed legislation, media outlets with a revenue in excess of 150,000 Australian dollars ($117,000), who are subject to Australia media legislation or codes of conduct, and whose primary audience is based in Australia can be compensated by Google and Facebook for content shared on their platforms.
This definition limits compensation to major news outlets only. The definition of “news content” in the legislation was also a challenge, as it was broadly identified as “issues or events that are relevant in engaging Australian in public debate and in informing democratic decision-making” or “current issues or events of public significance for Australians at a local, regional or national level.”
“This legislation is a response to damage that the gravitation of advertising to Google and Facebook has done to public interest journalism in Australia,” Fiona Martin, an expert on digital journalism, online publishing and social media at the University of Sydney, explained to Devex.
“But not only public interest journalism but the coffers of News Corporation and Seven West Media. So this is all about how the government responds to its media mates. The history of Australian media legislation is based on governments relations to the big media companies.”
According to Martin, if the proposed legislation aimed to benefit smaller media players, a basic tax on revenues from these companies, which could then be distributed in a publicly transparent and accountable way through government subsidies, would have been a better option.
Facebook and Google both strongly objected to the legislation. But while Google recently negotiated deals with major Australian media outlets to negotiate agreements, including News Corporation and Seven West Media, Facebook pulled the plug — and quickly.
“I believe their intention was to only block new sites, but in the process they have also blocked a lot of non-news related content,” Suranga Seneviratne, an expert in computer science, social media and cybersecurity at the University of Sydney’s School of Computer Science,
told Devex. “It appears they have done this quite in a rush. There are websites that clearly should not have been blocked. They could have had better planning on this.”
William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, said in a media release that the decision was made after the proposed legislation “misunderstood” the relationship between Facebook and publishers using it to share news content. And with news making up “less than 4% of the content people see in their news feed,” their expectation is that users will continue to engage with their platform.
What happens next?
According to WWF Australia, Facebook representatives are informing clients that pages are due to the broad definition of news content.
“They said the ACCC doesn’t provide a clear definition of news content so it has been difficult for Facebook to differentiate some pages from actual news publishers,” a spokesperson for WWF Australia told Devex. “They said Facebook will review the pages that have been inadvertently impacted, including WWF Australia’s page.”
The expectation is that pages will return, but it may take time. Currently NGOs are receiving an auto-response that the case is subjected to “further review.”
Other platforms are currently being used for communication as organizations wait to return to Facebook. But for Martin this is also an opportunity to think about engagement strategies — and whether Facebook is the right tool.
“In the beginning, Facebook killed MySpace by making it easier to self-publish. That has been it’s entire modus operandi right through. It has automated everything for us. It automates the publication of an image to go with your link and a little excerpt. It automates everything for you so you can use it without thinking. That’s been the downfall for a lot of businesses that are now solely dependent on Facebook for their marketing strategies. We’ve got to get away from that.”
“Community managers for years have been asking Facebook for better tools to moderate content and get rid of the bad actors. They have not paid any attention. If people are wondering why I should move from Facebook, bespoke platforms will give better control over their traffic, interactions, and moderation of what goes on in those communities," she said.
This was an important consideration for organizations not just in Australia, but globally, Martin said.