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04 September 2020

Australia: Facebook Faces Heavy Criticism Over Threat To Pull News

Facebook has faced heavy criticism over its threat to pull news from its platforms if the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s draft news media bargaining code becomes law.

The code, which is designed to address acute bargaining power imbalances between news businesses and the platforms, is widely supported by Australian media and organisations across the world including the News Media Association.

Writing in the Guardian, Belinda Barnet,  senior lecturer in media and communications at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, said: “Imagine if news content were removed entirely from its platform. Imagine if the lone supply of fact-checked, accountable information Australians can access on their platform was shut off.

“Facebook is threatening to do just that, in the middle of a global pandemic, because they don’t want to pay for news content. That’s what it comes down to. They don’t care about you or me or our media industry – they just don’t want to pay.

“They are not threatening to pull news content because they ‘care about the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector’ or because it is in ‘the best interests’ of that industry, as they claim; they are threatening to pull it because they know it will hurt.”

NMA deputy chief executive Lynne Anderson said: “Facebook’s threat to restrict the Australian public’s access to trusted and verifiable information during a worldwide pandemic shows exactly why robust intervention to curb the power of the tech giants is urgently needed. 

“If Facebook removed trusted news from its platforms, misinformation and bad actors would flourish and the harm to consumers would increase exponentially.

"We support the Australian authorities’ efforts to protect the public and news media sector from the tech giants’ harmful business practices and urge the UK Government to follow their lead by implementing the findings from the Competition and Market Authority's report into the digital marketplace.” 

David Chavern, chief executive of US body the News Media Alliance, said: "Facebook’s threat to block real journalism from its properties is simply an attempt to bully the Australian government and legislature. It is also a clear attempted exercise of their massive, anticompetitive market power. I suspect the Australian authorities won’t be easily intimidated.

"And without quality news and information, all of Facebook’s problems with misinformation would just become much worse. They would be taking away the only real balance for all the crazy rumors and conspiracy theories that they deliver.

"They should, instead, embrace quality journalism as an answer for many of their issues and offer Australian publishers better and more economically sustainable ways to deliver it to the public."

Google is also facing a backlash over its response to the ACCC code which led to  the regulator accusing the platform of publishing “misinformation” about the code.

In response to Facebook’s announcement, ACCC chair Rod Sims said: "Facebook’s threat today to prevent any sharing of news on its services in Australia is ill-timed and misconceived.

"The draft media bargaining code aims to ensure Australian news businesses, including independent, community and regional media, can get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google.

"Facebook already pays some media for news content. The code simply aims to bring fairness and transparency to Facebook and Google’s relationships with Australian news media businesses. 

"We note that according to the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report, 39 per cent of Australians use Facebook for general news, and 49 per cent use Facebook for news about COVID-19.

"As the ACCC and the Government work to finalise the draft legislation, we hope all parties will engage in constructive discussions."

Country Press Australia president Bruce Ellen said: “Facebook has gone off half cocked; the ACCC is proposing a framework under which news media businesses and the digital platforms have the opportunity to negotiate, with an arbitration process if an outcome could not be agreed.

“I understand they’re worried about it being so open-ended, but at this stage to say ‘we are going to cut news businesses off for Australian audiences’ is just preemptive and unnecessarily inflammatory when the process has just started," the Guardian reported

“We haven’t even got the exposure draft finished after submissions and this is their opening salvo?”

Responsible Technology Australia executive director Chris Cooper said: "Facebook threatening to pull reliable, factual content from Australians' newsfeeds is a sign of just how out of control these platforms are. 

"That Facebook would suggest blocking news in the middle of a pandemic, when accurate information is a key plank of the public health response really tells you all you need know about how much Zuckerberg cares about Australian society and cohesion."