News

Government condemns Facebook’s ‘wrong’ and ‘heavy handed’ actions

Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has confirmed Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not warn him of the platform’s decision to strip all news for local mastheads and users in a “constructive” and “pretty lengthy … around half an hour” phone call that took place early this morning, before the announcement broke.

“Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Frydenberg said at an afternoon press conference with Communications Minister Paul Fletcher.

Frydenberg and Fletcher speaking at the press conference

“Facebook had been, up to this point, engaged in pretty constructive discussions with the Australian news media businesses.

“And deals were relatively close. Google was always a little bit in front, and the pace of that progress really picked up over the last 72 hours [as Google locked in deals with Seven, Junkee, News Corp, and reportedly Nine], but Facebook had made significant progress.

“They were pretty well down the pitch, and they had entered into good faith negotiations with the media businesses. These actions have come at the 11th hour.”

Minister Fletcher echoed the arguments made by the likes of Nine and Guardian Australia that removing verified and trusted news sources would allow misinformation to go unchecked.

“What they’re effectively saying to Australians is: ‘You will not find content on our platform, which comes from an organisation which employs professional journalists, which has editorial policies, which has fact checking processes’,” the Communications Minister said.

“They’re effectively saying ‘You will not find information that meets those standards of accuracy’ on our site. That seems a very surprising position. And one that is unlikely to be in the long-term interests of their brand.”

The code passed through the House of Representatives last night, prompting the drastic response from Facebook, but will not become law until it is also passed by the Senate.

Frydenberg was adamant that the move does not change the government’s position: “We will legislate this code. We want the digital giants paying traditional news media businesses for generating original journalistic content.”

Frydenberg at the press conference today

“We’ll see if we can find a pathway forward,” Treasurer Frydenberg said, but added that “if this was easy, every other country in the world would have done it already”.

A number of non-news Facebook pages were captured by the automatic bans, including government pages delivering key health messages during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as South Australia Health and Queensland Health. The national domestic violence hotline, 1800 Respect, and Bureau of Meteorology were also blocked from posting.

“Their decision to block Australians’ access to government sites, be they about support through the pandemic, mental health, emergency services, the Bureau of Meteorology, were completely unrelated to the media code, which is yet to pass through the senate,” Frydenberg said.

“But what today’s events do confirm for all Australians is the immense market power of these media digital giants. These digital giants loom very, very large.”

Facebook said it had implemented a loose definition of ‘news’ in order to comply with the law, but would work to reinstate pages that should not have been impacted.

“We don’t accept that,” Communications Minister Fletcher said of such a definition.

“If there’s some misunderstanding, we’re happy to work through it and clarify that. But the provisions of the code are very clear. I would make this point, the code is not in law yet.

“So the argument that they had no choice but to do this because of the breadth of the definition of news. The code is not yet in the law. So it raises an obvious question: Why are they doing this now?”

But Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland suggested the government is partially to blame for the outcome, saying at a doorstop event this morning that “it is clear that their [Facebook’s] decision is based on the uncertainty that they perceive with this code. In that event, this is not a workable code that has been landed by this government.”

The journalists’ union claimed Facebook’s feed is “allowing the promotion of conspiracy theories, misinformation, fake news and QAnon crackpots”.

“Unlike Google, which has sensibly begun negotiating content agreements with publishers and broadcasters, Facebook has abused its dominant position and is holding Australian news agencies, advertisers and consumers to ransom with this cowardly response,” the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s federal media president, Marcus Strom, said.

Publishers such as Nine, Guardian Australia, the ABC, and Junkee were quick to condemn the retaliatory move and also pointed out the misinformation risks.

“The best antidote to this is the promotion of fact-based journalism, so this decision risks making the platform the permanent home of cat videos and conspiracy theories,” Guardian MD Dan Stinton told Mumbrella. “Good luck to them.”

This afternoon, News Corp added to that argument, just hours after it struck a ‘significant’ deal with Google. In an email to staff, local boss Michael Miller said: “This is a move that clearly encourages fake news over reliable news and demonstrates the extraordinary market power Facebook holds.

“While we are disappointed in Facebook’s moves today, we have had months of discussions with them to date, and we will continue to do so. Our support for the code hasn’t changed.”

Verizon Media called the action “drastic”, while Southern Cross Austereo’s chief executive, Grant Blackley, said he was “surprised at the announcement and general lack of engagement”.

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