Melbourne, Australia – Facebook took a huge step this week in its battle with the Australian government, blocking access to content from news outlets for anyone in Australia.
Facebook and Google have been battling with the Australian federal government over proposed legislation to make the technology giants pay for Australian news content on their platforms.
The legislation, colloquially known as the ‘Media Bargaining Code,’ would see companies like Facebook and Google have to negotiate with media companies about how much the tech companies must pay media companies for their news content, according to the ABC.
Neither Facebook nor Google are happy with the plan, and although Google threatened to pull its search platform out of Australia, it has now relented and begun to sign agreements with various media outlets.
Facebook, on the other hand, took a different stance and blocked access to news content for Australians on its platform.
Not only has it blocked Australians’ access to information from Australian outlets like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, it also blocked access to international outlets, such as CBS in the U.S.A. and the BBC in the UK.
Not even Youth Journalism International escaped the algorithm – the content on the U.S.-based nonprofit’s Facebook page is also blocked.
The algorithm Facebook used to block these sites was a little too far reaching.
Not only did it block the content on these sites, but it also blocked plenty of sites it shouldn’t have, like local health services and AFL Women’s, which is the national women’s Australian Rules football competition.
It also blocked many much smaller not-for-profit news outlets run by volunteers that wouldn’t even benefit from the government’s proposed legislation.
Two of these are Siren Sport, which aims to promote women’s sport in Australia, and Aussievision, which is a Eurovision news website. Both pages have since been restored, but should never have been caught up in the mess in the first place.
Although not hugely concerned by Facebook blocking them, Siren Sport was more worried about the effects of the blocking on other smaller pages, according to a statement by Kasey Symons on behalf of the organization.
Facebook isn’t where Siren Sport has its greatest impact, according to Symons, so it’s not too affected by the changes.
“We invest much more time in preparing custom content for our dedicated subscribers through our weekly newsletter and our most powerful social platform is Twitter,” Symons said. “What we are more concerned about is community sports pages and alternative, independent media pages that have been affected by this. These pages do more than share news, they create communities and safe spaces for sports fans to come together and connect. We hope to see this rectified because we know, particularly in the women’s sports fan space, online communities are key.”
In a statement, Australian Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher criticized the move by the tech giant.
“Facebook has done the wrong thing. Facebook’s decision to block non-news sites from the platform made no sense,” Fletcher’s statement said, without naming the ‘non-news sites. “None of these pages would fall within the definition of the Morrison Government’s media code. This is of particular concern in rural and regional communities where connectedness and access to meteorological data or emergency information are even more important than elsewhere.”
Facebook released its own statement.
“In response to Australia’s proposed new Media Bargaining law, Facebook will restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content,” Facebook said.
“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter,” Facebook’s statement said.
The statement continued, “This discussion has focused on US technology companies and how they benefit from news content on their services. We understand many will ask why the platforms may respond differently. The answer is because our platforms have fundamentally different relationships with news. Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue.
In fact, and as we have made clear to the Australian government for many months, the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favor of the publishers — which is the reverse of what the legislation would require the arbitrator to assume. Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million.
For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal. News makes up less than 4% of the content people see in their News Feed. Journalism is important to a democratic society, which is why we build dedicated, free tools to support news organizations around the world in innovating their content for online audiences.”
Alyce Collett is a Correspondent with Youth Journalism International.