Australia Unfriended? 

19th February 2021 Media Law

On Thursday, Facebook took the unprecedented step of blocking Australian users from viewing and sharing news on its platform.

In the process, it reportedly made a point of blocking other non-news websites.

The move came after the Australian Government introduced a Bill into the Australian Parliament which would mean that social media platforms would be required to pay for news content.

The Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020 had its third reading in the Australian Parliament on 17 February 2021.

Facebook suggested that its removal of WWF-Australia’s and Motorola’s feeds was the result of Australia’s new legislation, but critics suggested that it was simply due to Facebook’s algorithms having issues.

In August 2020, Will Easton the Managing Director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand had warned the Australian Government that it would restrict news content:

“Australia is drafting a new regulation that misunderstands the dynamics of the internet and will do damage to the very news organisations the government is trying to protect. When crafting this new legislation, the commission overseeing the process ignored important facts, most critically the relationship between the news media and social media and which one benefits most from the other.”

“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. This is not our first choice – it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector.”

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested that Facebook had “unfriended” Australia. Ironically, his comments were posted on Facebook. Mr Morrison said:

“Facebook's actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing.  I am in regular contact with the leaders of other nations on these issues.

These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them. They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.

We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament as it votes on our important News Media Bargaining Code. Just as we weren’t intimidated when Amazon threatened to leave the country and when Australia drew other nations together to combat the publishing of terrorist content on social media platforms.

I encourage Facebook to constructively work with the Australian Government, as Google recently demonstrated in good faith.”

Facebook had previously told the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission that news does not drive a significant long-term commercial value for Facebook.

It has been widely reported this week that News Corp has signed a “multi-year” partnership with Google which will see News Corp receiving payments from Google for its content.

Could the UK unfriend Facebook?

Last year I blogged about the value of digital advertising in the UK economy. Where there is big value there is usually a Government looking for revenue.

The Australian approach does beg the question: could the same thing happen here in the UK?

It is a basic principle that the UK Parliament can make or unmake any law. Perhaps this is even more applicable in a post-Brexit world.

The News Media Association, quoted in a House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee report ‘Breaking News? The Future of UK Journalism’ , said that with every passing month there is a substantial risk of a major publishing company going out of business. The News Media Association makes the point that local and regional media is worst hit.

The same report has stated that Facebook has a 73% share of the social media market and that Google has a greater than 90 per cent share of the search engine market.

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020 states that 31% of users use Facebook and other social media platforms as a source of local information and news compared with 44% who source news from their local newspaper.

Unsurprisingly, media companies appear to be supportive of initiatives intended to force the tech giants to pay for content.  This is to an extent payback for the demise of hard copy newspapers.  Equally unsurprisingly, the tech giants are less enthusiastic about paying for content. It remains to be seen whether the UK Government will follow the ‘Australian model’?

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Dominic Walker is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Media Law department

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