Over the last few years, Facebook has been heavily criticized for its impact on news distribution, and its subsequent influence on political and societal shifts. Now, we’re about to get a case study in whether those criticisms are actually justified, with The Social Network set to block all news content in Australia due to disagreement over the Australian Government’s proposed new media bargaining laws.
As explained by Facebook:
“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.”
That’s a major stance for Facebook to take. Earlier this week, Google announced new deals with two of Australia’s biggest news publishers – Seven West Media and Nine – which will see the search giant pay these publishers around $30 million each for use of their content within Google’s news products. Those deals will see Google continue to operate under the new media bargaining provisions. Without such agreements, Google too was threatening to pull out of the Australian market entirely.
The Google deals have been welcomed by the Australian Government, but Facebook has opted not to adhere to the new rules.
“The [Australian Government’s] 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.”
The proposed media bargaining law sought to force Google and Facebook to share a portion of their revenue with local news publishers via a mandatory code of agreement. The law was formulated on the back of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s “Digital Platforms Inquiry” report, published in 2019, which underlined the sheer dominance of Google and Facebook in the local digital market.
Given that Google and Facebook take up around 80% of the Australian digital advertising market, and considering the compounding impacts on the local media sector as a result of COVID-19, the government sought to push forward with the new arrangements, essentially forcing Google and Facebook to pay for links to Australian news sites.
Which makes little sense. As both Google and Facebook have noted, if anything, they actually drive direct value for Australian news publishers by providing means to distribute their links.
“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.”
Still, the Government is pushing ahead, which will now see Facebook block distribution of all news content among Australian users, which it will do via a combination of technological and human review.
“For Australian publishers this means:
- They are restricted from sharing or posting any content on Facebook Pages
- Admins will still be able to access other features from their Facebook Page, including Page insights and Creator Studio
- We will continue to provide access to all other standard Facebook services, including data tools and CrowdTangle
For international publishers this means:
- They can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts can’t be viewed or shared by Australian audiences
For our Australian community this means:
- They cannot view or share Australian or international news content on Facebook or content from Australian and international news Pages
For our international community this means:
- They cannot view or share Australian news content on Facebook or content from Australian news Pages”
As noted, this, inadvertently, provides an interesting case study for Facebook’s move towards reducing the amount of political content on its platform. If Facebook does indeed end up maintaining this blockade for some time, it will give us new insight into how Facebook might be if news content was not available in the big blue app, and what impacts that has on subsequent discourse and distribution of media reportage.
Will content family and friends now dominate feeds? Will light-hearted, inspirational posts get more time in the sun?
And most importantly, will that make users come back to Facebook more often, or less?
Figures show that a growing number of people now rely on Facebook for news updates, and groups and discussions are often dominated by the latest news stories. If Australians can’t discuss such on Facebook, will they go to other platforms instead?
There are many questions that this test can provide insight into, and while it still feels like a compromise can, and will be met at some stage, it’d be good to keep the news ban in place, at least for a time, to get some understanding as to the impacts of news engagement on the platform.
The changes will be implemented for Australian users shortly.