‘Ill-timed and misconceived’: The industry responds to Facebook’s threat to ban news in Australia

Yesterday Facebook made waves across the country when it announced it would remove the ability for Australians to share news content across its platforms should the ACCC’s proposed News Media Bargaining Code come into effect. Mumbrella’s Hannah Blackiston looks at how the industry responded.

Unsurprisingly, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) did not welcome Facebook’s threats to withdraw news content from its platform in Australia.

The watchdog’s chair Rod Sims responded swiftly yesterday, calling the announcement ‘ill-timed and misconceived’ and pointing to the tech giant’s role in spreading important information during a global pandemic.

“The draft media bargaining code aims to ensure Australian news businesses, including independent, community and regional media, can get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google,” said Sims.

Sims called Facebook’s comments ‘ill-timed’

“Facebook already pays some media for news content. The code simply aims to bring fairness and transparency to Facebook and Google’s relationships with Australian news media businesses.

“We note that according to the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report, 39% of Australians use Facebook for general news, and 49% use Facebook for news about COVID-19.”

Sims went on to say that he hopes as the draft code is finalised, Facebook will continue to be part of the discussions to reach a result all parties are happy with.

Sims’ thoughts were echoed by Nine, one of the major media companies who has thrown its support behind the code. A Nine spokesperson said the company is ready to meet Facebook at the table.

“We find it a strange response as it is a demonstration of Facebook’s use of its monopoly power while failing to recognise the importance of reliable news content to balance the fake news that proliferates on their platform,” said the spokesperson.

“We are ready to engage and hope to come to a constructive outcome with Facebook which will work for both of us and importantly the Australian community.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who fronted calls for the code following the ACCC’s digital platform inquiry, wasn’t so polite in his statements.

The government won’t respond to ‘heavy-handed tactics’ said Frydenberg

“Australia makes laws that advance our national interest and we won’t be responding to coercion or heavy-handed tactics, wherever they come from,” Frydenberg said.

“We want a sustainable media environment and key to that is to seek payment for original journalistic content. We’re committed to these reforms – we won’t be bullied, no matter how big the international company is, no matter how powerful they are, no matter how valuable they are.”

Communications minister Paul Fletcher agreed with Frydenberg, saying the threats were likely empty and that the government wouldn’t be swayed by them.

Facebook’s threat to block news posting across Facebook and Instagram by consumers in Australia won’t impact international users, the tech giant has said, but will include publishers not involved in the ACCC’s code. Will Easton, managing director for Facebook in Australia and New Zealand posted the announcement yesterday, saying it was an unfortunate turn, but that Facebook’s hand had been forced.

“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.

Free TV, the industry body for the free to air broadcast industry, accused the platform of ‘holding Australians to ransom’ in its response to the post. CEO Bridget Fair said the move proved at its very core why the ACCC is drafting a code in the first place.

Fair said Facebook was ‘bullying’ and ‘holding Australians to ransom’

“What we’re seeing today is a global monopoly that will say and do anything to avoid making a fair payment for news content. Australian Facebook users are being held to ransom as a tactic to intimidate the Australian Government into backing down on this issue,” said Fair.

“This type of bullying behaviour is exactly the reason that the ACCC concluded that the Mandatory Code was the only reasonable way to even up the bargaining power between Facebook, Google and Australian News Media Businesses.

“Facebook is already awash with fake news and conspiracy theories. Removing trusted Australian news from their platform will only serve to allow misinformation to be further spread unchecked and unchallenged. Unfortunately Australian consumers will be the collateral damage in Facebook’s campaign to hold onto monopoly profits.”

It isn’t yet clear how Facebook would handle the ban, but the platform did roll out a warning to consumers that it could ‘remove or restrict access to your content, services or information’ if ‘doing so is reasonably necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook’. The platform has said content sharing between friends and family wouldn’t be impacted by the ban.

Michelle Rowland, the shadow minister for communications, said the focus from here onwards should be whatever outcome best benefits Australian journalism.

“Australian media is in crisis and the Morrison Government’s track record for delivery in the communications space inspires little confidence,” she said.

“It is the Morrison Government’s responsibility to land a workable code. The range of concerns held by all stakeholders demands a credible response from the Government.

Never has the Fourth Estate been more important and it is imperative that the Government gets this right.”


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