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Facebook threatens to block Australians from sharing news over ACCC bargaining code

Facebook has threatened to block Australians from sharing news across its platforms in response to the ACCC’s proposed code which would see publishers able to bargain with tech giants for payment for their news content.

The sharing of personal content between family and friends wouldn’t be affected by the change, but Australian users would be unable to share both local and international news on Facebook or Instagram.

Will Easton, managing director for Facebook in Australia and New Zealand said the News Media Bargaining Code would have a negative impact on the publishers who are calling for the change, as well as the tech platforms.

“Australia is drafting a new regulation that misunderstands the dynamics of the internet and will do damage to the very news organisations the government is trying to protect. When crafting this new legislation, the commission overseeing the process ignored important facts, most critically the relationship between the news media and social media and which one benefits most from the other,” said Easton in a blog post.

The purpose of the code, which has received support from all major media companies, is to reset the balance of power between the media giants and the tech platforms by allowing publishers to bargain for payment when their content is used. Facebook has confirmed that all publishers will be impacted if it decides to block news content in Australia, not just those involved in the ACCC discussions.

“Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram. This is not our first choice – it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector,” said Easton.

Facebook’s comments follow a strong response from Australia’s other major tech platform, Google. MD Mel Silva said the changes would create a ‘dramatically’ worse experience for consumers and warned that publishers would make ‘unreasonable and exorbitant financial demands’.

Easton called the proposed law ‘unprecedented in its reach’ and said the ACCC would force Facebook to pay for content that was voluntarily being shared across its platform.

“The ACCC presumes that Facebook benefits most in its relationship with publishers, when in fact the reverse is true. News represents a fraction of what people see in their News Feed and is not a significant source of revenue for us. Still, we recognize that news provides a vitally important role in society and democracy, which is why we offer free tools and training to help media companies reach an audience many times larger than they have previously,” said Easton.

Both Facebook and Google have denied they receive significant commercial benefit from news content. They have also questioned other parts of the code, including the possibility that the platforms would need to expose their algorithms or provide news producers with more data than they currently have access too. Google warned in an open letter to consumers that the proposed changes could be dangerous for Australian users.

“A proposed law, the News Media Bargaining Code, would force us to provide you with a dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube, could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, and would put the free services you use at risk in Australia,” said Silva.

Easton also denied that Facebook makes money from news, saying that in the first five months of 2020, Facebook providing Australian news websites with 2bn clicks, worth an estimated $200m, for ‘no charge’.

Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, also posted about the change, saying the platform’s commitment to journalism had not changed and pointing to its ongoing investment in news reporting and investigative journalism.

“We are disappointed by the outcome in Australia. This is not what we wanted and I want to make sure you know that the decision has nothing to do with our ongoing global commitment to journalism and the Facebook Journalism Project. We will continue to invest heavily in news around the world,” Reid said.

The announcement about news came as Facebook warned users it would be updating its terms of reference next month. The agreement says: “We also can remove or restrict access to your content, services or information if we determine that doing so is reasonably necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook”.

Facebook came under criticism for the way it chose to announce the news, briefing American journalists before the event and providing exclusive interviews, but refusing to talk to Australian media.

Critics have said Facebook’s decision to focus its announcement in America clearly shows where the tech company’s priorities lie.

“We already invest millions of dollars in Australian news businesses and, during discussions over this legislation, we offered to invest millions more. We had also hoped to bring Facebook News to Australia, a feature on our platform exclusively for news, where we pay publishers for their content,” said Easton.

“But these proposals were overlooked. Instead, we are left with a choice of either removing news entirely or accepting a system that lets publishers charge us for as much content as they want at a price with no clear limits. Unfortunately, no business can operate that way.”

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