February 28, 2021

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‘Arrogant’: Australia PM slams Facebook move to block news

4 min read

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has lashed out at Facebook after the social media giant banned people from viewing or sharing news on its platform in response to a proposed law that would make tech giants such as Facebook and Google pay publishers for their news content.

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Morrison posted on Facebook on Thursday in reaction to the move.

“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them. They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it,” he added.

News organisations, particularly from the West, have complained that internet companies are getting rich at their expense, selling advertising linked to their reports without sharing revenue.

Google accounts for 53 percent percent of Australian online advertising revenue and Facebook 23 percent, according to Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Frydenberg said he was given no warning before Facebook acted in the wake of Australia’s House of Representatives passing legislation, which must be passed by the Senate to become law.

“We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our parliament,” he said.

“This is an assault on a sovereign nation,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told Parliament. “It is an assault on people’s freedom and, in particular, it’s an utter abuse of big technologies’ market power and control over technology.”

Facebook’s argument

Defending its decision, Facebook said the proposed law “ignores the realities” of its relationship with publishers that use its service to “share news content.”

“As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted. However, we will reverse any Pages that are inadvertently impacted,” a company spokesman said on Thursday.

The Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price.

Both Google and Facebook have threatened retaliation if Australia enacts the law, which the government contends will ensure media businesses receive fair payment for their journalism being linked on those platforms.

However, Facebook’s dramatic move represents a split from Google after they joined together for years to campaign against the laws. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google has instead sealed preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.

A Facebook spokesperson said official government pages – including those alerting the public to COVID-19 outbreaks, bushfires and cyclones – were not the target and were “inadvertently impacted,” the AFP news agency reported.

Some non-news sites caught up in the blackout gradually returned throughout the day, but Australians are still grappling with the fallout from the decision.

Australia’s proposed law would be the first of its kind, but other governments are also pressuring Google, Facebook and other internet companies to pay news outlets and other publishers for content.

In Europe, Google had to negotiate with French publishers after a court last year upheld an order saying such agreements were required by a 2019 European Union copyright directive.

France is the first government to enforce the rules, but the decision suggests Google, Facebook and other companies will face similar requirements in other parts of the 27-nation trade bloc.

Last year, Facebook announced it would pay US news organisations including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and USA Today for headlines. No financial details were released.

In Spain, Google shut down its news website after a 2014 law required it to pay publishers.

‘Alarming and dangerous’

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson described the move – which has also impacted Indigenous community pages and even Facebook’s own page – as an “alarming and dangerous turn of events”.

“Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable,” she said.

The tech giant has said news makes up just 4 percent of what people view on its website, but for Australians, Facebook’s role in news delivery is growing.

A 2020 University of Canberra study found 21 percent of Australians use social media as their primary news source, up three percent from the previous year, while 39 percent of the population uses Facebook to receive news. The same study said 29 percent of Australian news video content is consumed on Facebook.

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