Industry reacts to Facebook’s Australia news ban

Yesterday, Facebook took what it described as a ‘heavy heart’ decision to stop allowing news content on its services in Australia. The move comes on the back of the country’s proposed new Media Bargaining legislation and the tensions between government, tech giants, and publishers that have escalated in recent months. The ban will restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.

We’ve looked several times in recent weeks at the backstory framing this one, in which Google too has been a key protagonist. But while Google has in recent weeks been busy attempting to demonstrate that it would prefer to operate with carrot rather than stick where publishers are concerned, relations between Facebook and the traditional industry in Australia appear to have come to a head on Wednesday:

“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,” wrote Will Easton, Managing Director, Facebook Australia & New Zealand, on About.fb.

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Needless to say the industry’s initial reaction has not been a positive one, and matters were not helped by the fact that within its initial imposition of the ‘blockade’, Facebook appeared to wipe out health departments and charities as well. Guardian Australia Reporter, Josh Taylor, immediately took to Twitter to point out that Facebook’s action had even resulted in it banning certain aspects of ‘itself’ and later penned and article titled: ‘Facebook’s botched Australia news ban hits health departments, charities and its own pages’.

From the US, Reuters ran the headline: ‘Anger mounts as Facebook’s Australia news ban sweeps up charities, government pages’, while the UK’s Telegraph newspaper said: ‘#DeleteFacebook trends as backlash grows over Australia ban’, and is now live-blogging the situation.

For the initiated, the aside that the company managed to remove some of its own pages during a bid to blockout publisher content, will make for interesting reading. This occurrence could prove to be an embarrassing glitch for the tech giant, which faces increasing global calls for it to be regulated in the same way that traditional publishers are.

A battle-hardened Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, took – somewhat ironically – to Facebook to post a statement, that was later reported by the BBC and other outlets: “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. We simply won’t be intimidated.”

Morrison’s reference to being in ‘regular contact’ with other world leaders on such issues also makes for interesting reading from a regulatory pov. For a while now, questions have begun to be asked about how such global tech giants (and we must remember, originally US-emanating tech giants) can be regulated by national governments.

While issues surrounding regulation and content ownership have been swirling around media tech platforms for time now, this latest move by Facebook is clearly a significant one. Commenting on the current situation, FIPP CEO James Hewes, highlights the increasingly different paths that Google and Facebook appear to be taking in terms of future-planning relationships with publishers:

“This is clearly a very complex issue. I suspect we will find that Facebook has made the right decision for Facebook and Google has done likewise. Would Zuckerberg prefer it if Facebook wasn’t used as a platform for sharing news? Probably – and I suspect it wouldn’t affect the business model much. In the end this might be a better solution all round.”

“As for Google, it remains the case that one of the players shouldn’t get to set the rules of the game. In every other sphere, we have copyright and fair usage laws that regulate how content can be used. This should be no exception. Those laws should be set and governed by governments, who quite frankly have just not kept up with the pace of change in this space.”

We also spoke to Tom Bureau, CEO of Immediate Media, in response to this development, who emphasised this dichotomy:  

“The difference in approach between Facebook and Google is notable, as Australia becomes a test case for regulation around the world. Given the rising expectation of regulation in the EU, and possibly the UK, the battle lines are being drawn.”

“The global deal that News Corp has brokered with Google may now form a template for other agreements, unless Google are only going to play with publishers with the biggest commercial and political clout. Facebook are standing behind the defence that they are merely a vassal for sharing content, and can’t be seen as publishers. This feels like a really useful test case for the other governments and interested parties who are watching intensely.”

In Facebook’s defence and included in his statement, Australia & New Zealand Managing Director, Will Easton, does raise an additional distinction between the two platforms, which comes down to publisher buy-in:

“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… Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million.”

The extent to which this argument will stand the test of time (or indeed the current round of publisher deals being done by Google for that matter) remains to be seen. However, cutting through the economics of the situation to bring us right back to where we began with the title of this article: the world saw Facebook cut off news from social yesterday (and inadvertently take charity content along with it). Whether you’re a publisher, a government professional, or simply a user of the site, that is an incredibly difficult decision to react positively to. 


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