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March 1, 2021

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Facebook Agrees to Restore Australian News Pages After Amendments to Government Code

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Facebook has agreed to restore the Pages of Australian news publishers on its platform after the Australian Government added some new amendments to its proposed Media Bargaining Code, which will essentially give Facebook more time to negotiate separate deals with publishers, paving the way for the launch of Facebook News in the region.

As explained by Facebook:

We’re pleased that we’ve been able to reach an agreement with the Australian government […] After further discussions, we are satisfied that the government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognize the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”

The Government has implemented four amendments to its proposed code, which would have forced Facebook to pay publishers for any links to their content posted on its platforms. But the key addition in question appears to this:

“A decision to designate a platform under the code must take into account whether a digital platform has made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with news media businesses”

The amendments also note that a publisher will be informed on the Government’s decision to include it, or not, under the Code within one month of being assessed for such, and that the platform will then have two months to negotiate commercial agreements with publishers before it’s forced into arbitration on a payment agreement.

In other words, Facebook now has two months to establish a satisfactory level of commercial agreements with Australian news publishers before the Government decides whether they’re ‘significant’ enough for Facebook to avoid enforcement under the code.

A final note explains that the Code:

“…only applies to the extent a digital platform is making covered news content available through those services.”

Which could point to revisions around how the Code relates to posts made by users and content made available by Facebook itself.

There’s still a lack of clarity here about how much Facebook needs to pay, or how many local media groups it has to establish commercial agreements with in order to be exempt, but the amendments were evidently enough for Facebook to reinstate news content on the platform, with a view to a path forward.

Facebook already has some commercial agreements with Australian news publishers in place. Back in 2019, Facebook signed deals with a range of local broadcasters for exclusive Facebook Watch content, while the company has also established connections with several online media publications, and was planning to invest ‘millions more’ in the local news sector by bringing its separate news tab to the nation. Facebook scrapped that plan when the Government continued to push ahead with its Code, but now, based on these amendments, that appears to be what’s going to happen.

That will essentially enable news content to continue on Facebook, with Facebook establishing separate payments with individual publishers, similar to Google’s approach which will see it cut deals for its News Showcase product. 

Facebook implemented a full blockade of all Australian news publishers last week after negotiations broke down with the Government – after repeatedly telling the Government and industry bodies that it doesn’t need news content, and as such, won’t pay for it, Facebook rolled out a full ban, which covered not only news publishers, but government Pages, arts institutions, health authorities and more.

The impacts of Facebook’s actions have been significant, with some Australian publishers reporting a 50% drop in their website traffic.

Facebook referral traffic

That’s likely put the pressure back onto the Australian Government to come up with a plan to resolve the situation, in order to avoid further economic impacts. Larger publishers might be able to handle a drop-off in referal traffic, but for smaller, more Facebook-reliant organizations, the ban has essentially stunted their operations for the last week.

On reading these amendments, it doesn’t appear to be the end of the Facebook negotiation process in this sense, but it will provide additional room for changes, and for Facebook to counter with its local media investment plan.

So who’s the winner here?

Well, no one yet. As noted, my suspicion is that the Government needed to come up with a compromise, and to do so while saving face after standing up to The Social Network, then losing its footing when Facebook backed up its talk. If Facebook refuses to pay, then the Government can’t essentially make them, if Facebook’s willing to pull news content entirely instead. So rather than lose millions in potential investment, I suspect the Government will reframe the arrival of Facebook News, which will be announced some time in the next few weeks, as a win for the local news sector, which it negotiated into existence.

Which is not correct – Facebook has repeatedly noted that it has been offering additional investment for Facebook News all along.

Regadless, it now seems likely that the final outcome will be a return to the status quo for regular Facebook users in AUS, while local news publishers will be able to access additional investment via deals to be featured in Facebook News instead. That gives local publishers some extra money, and keeps things running – though as has been noted by many analysts, the impetus for the Australian Government’s push appears to be the big players (e.g News Corp), pressuring it to squeeze the big tech platforms for more money.

The Government needs good press to win the next election, the publishers want more money. The equation seems far less about benefiting local media organizations in general, and far more about winning political points. Hopefully, smaller organizations are also able to win out in the final make-up.

Australian news Pages are set to be restored in the coming days.     




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