On February 18, Australians woke up to a drastically different Facebook─one that prevented Australians from sharing news links and accessing articles or posts from publishers, including volunteer-run youth and student media outlets. This even extended to international publishers such as The New York Times. Australian news content was also barred from reaching individuals outside of the country.
The algorithm that Facebook utilized to perform the ban inadvertently blocked other pages, including government health departments and charity foundations. This came a few days before COVID-19 vaccines became accessible in the country, and while most of the pages have since been recovered, it was criticized to have potentially dangerous effects on vaccine confidence and misinformation.
While the ban was reversed the following week due to modifications in the proposed media legislation, Facebook’s ban highlights the powerful role that Big Tech plays in regulating online content and choosing what information gets to be viewed by its users.
In a first-of-its-kind media legislation, Australia introduced the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code last year. If enacted, this would require Google and Facebook to negotiate deals with media companies when publishing news content on their digital platforms. If negotiations failed, the Australia Communications and Media Authority would act as arbitrator and be able to levy a fine of up to $10 million AUD. This penalty was highly criticized by the tech giants, as they believed the legislation would set a dangerous precedent and was ‘unworkable’.
The revised media legislation, which resulted in the reversal of Facebook’s news ban, would exclude technology companies from the media code if they sign enough deals with publishers.
The law was proposed after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched an 18-month inquiry that tracked the imbalance between the media’s revenues and that of social media platforms or search engines. The continuous decline in revenues for journalism would threaten the survival and quality of news content in the country if left unregulated.
In 2020, Reuters released a survey that showed that 52% of Australians used social media as a source for their news. Facebook was their top choice, but from the company’s perspective the news only made up 4% of the content being shared on their platform. This highlights the bargaining power imbalance between media companies and the tech giant. As things stood, news publishers were heavily reliant on Facebook, while Facebook itself could do without news content entirely.
The law, which some call a ‘link tax’ (because technology platforms have to pay media companies whenever a news link is shared), has its flaws. Both Facebook and Google heavily criticized the legislation, with Google saying that it would ‘break’ the way their search engine operates. Both have threatened to exclude news content from their platforms or to leave the Australian market entirely, but only Facebook ended up following through.
Google, a few days before Facebook’s ban, made separate deals with news publishers such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Seven West Media. They will provide payments over the next three years, a share of ad revenues, and have news articles included in a new subscription platform.
Facebook’s response can be considered a slippery slope towards a world where technology companies have the capacity to ‘bully a democracy’ and threaten the necessary spread of information by shutting off access to reliable news sites or government pages. The move, in the long run, may also result in misinformation and radicalization because fake news is now more accessible than concrete, fact-checked information. “Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform,” Lisa Davies, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, tweeted.
Other countries have started looking deeper into curbing the market power of tech giants such as Facebook and Google. In France, for instance, Google has entered a deal to pay around $76 million USD to 121 French news publishers over the course of three years. This occurred after the country passed a copyright law, which required digital platforms to start talks with news publishers for the use of their content.
Canada and the United Kingdom are also considering ways in which they can implement digital restrictions. The United States is currently pursuing antitrust cases against tech giants, which include Facebook and Google.
Julian Knight, a British MP in the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sports committee, noted that Facebook had, by this ban, exposed its true colors and that the British MPs are watching ‘very closely’ how the situation unfolds.
He commented: “This is not just about Australia. This is Facebook putting a marker down, saying to the world that ‘If you do wish to limit our powers… we can remove what is for many people a utility’.”
While their response was extreme, the law itself isn’t perfect. The wide scope of requiring the platforms to pay for any link shared can be hard to regulate and difficult to incorporate in a business model. For instance, if a personal account shared a link to a news site, the fact that Facebook may have to pay for this would end up costing a lot of money.
Additionally, the legislation may not be profitable for every media company but may instead continue to secure media concentration in favor of the larger publishers. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, for instance, owns most of the newspapers in Australia. The law may make it more difficult for smaller publishers to establish themselves online as they will have less bargaining power to negotiate deals with the tech giants.
While this battle is currently taking place in Australia, the response of the tech giants imply the vast amount of power they have globally. If you can control the type of content people consume, you can control what they think about and how they then respond towards certain issues. This power may shape the way Big Tech will negotiate with other governments looking to pursue tougher digital restrictions.