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Facebook’s news ban ultimatum to Australia is a sign of worse things to come

With Facebook planning to ban the sharing of news articles on its platform in Australia, we are already seeing the social media giant twist its values to avoid regulatory action.

This is now evident with Facebook's changes to its terms of service, which will allow Facebook to censor and remove content it deems would put in danger of regulatory scrutiny First, however, we need to understand how we got to this point, and how an altercation between an Australian regulator body and Facebook escalated to this stage In July, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCA) proposed a new law that would have Facebook (and Google) pay media publishers for sharing their articles and content on their sites

With Facebook planning to ban the sharing of news articles on its platform in Australia, we are already seeing the social media giant twist its values to avoid regulatory action. This is now evident with Facebook’s changes to its terms of service, which will allow Facebook to censor and remove content it deems would put in danger of regulatory scrutiny

First, however, we need to understand how we got to this point, and how an altercation between an Australian regulator body and Facebook escalated to this stage.

Australia’s sideThis whole controversy started when the Australian government proposed a new law at the end of July that would require Facebook and Google to negotiate with media publishers and pay them when their content is shared on these online platforms. The Australian government believes the two tech giants are making a significant amount of revenue from users browsing and accessing news content from their platforms off the back of media outlets.

“The draft code would allow news media businesses to bargain individually or collectively with Google and Facebook over payment for the inclusion of news on their services,” the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCA) said in its announcement. 

The ACCA’s decision is generally seen as a way to bolster Australia’s ailing media sector. 

Facebook’s side

In retaliation, Facebook issued an ultimatum saying that it will ban news sharing on its platform (and Instagram) if the law goes through, saying that the new regulation “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet and will do damage to the very news organisations the government is trying to protect.”

The blunt blog post by Will Easton, Managing Director, Facebook Australia & New Zealand, said that “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.”

According to Easton, “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.”

He cites data saying that Facebook sent 2.3 billion clicks from its News Feed to Australian news websites at no charge over the first five months of 2020. He estimates that this auxiliary traffic brought Australian publishers traffic worth an estimated $200 million AUD.(USD $146 million). 

However, he clearly overlooks the fact that programmatic advertising on their platform derives a massive amount of data from its users based on the news they share and read, which is one of the reasons advertisers use the social media platform to place ads in the first place. More on that in a bit.

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Both media publishers and advertisers will lose out

When looking to understand the true impact of Facebook’s ultimatum, one only needs look to history for similar examples of such bans. 

According to Wired, “a 2014 Spanish law required publishers to charge Google for the headlines and snippets of their stories that appeared on Google News. In response, the company removed the Google News service from Spain and took Spanish publishers off its news service globally. Readership of news stories dropped, particularly at smaller, less-well-known outlets, according to one study.”

In 2014, Germany’s biggest publishing house took similar action, Wired said, preventing Google from featuring snippets of its articles in a bid to make the search giant pay licensing fees. This backfired on the publisher and they backed out after traffic plunged.

At present, France is engaged in a similar battle with Google over its News snippets feature. 

Today, it’s not only media publishers that would suffer from the Australia ban. On a platform like Facebook, advertisers can target users that follow and share certain types of news. If Australian customers can no longer share or access articles from their News Feed, advertisers will lose out on an important source of metrics that would likely help them zone in on a tighter, more accurate audience. 

A 2019 study by Pew Research Center found that 55% of US adults get their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes” – an 8% increase from 2018. About three-in-ten (28%) said they get their news “often,” up from 20% in 2018. 

In Australia, younger individuals generally get their news from social media, according to another 2019 study. However, only 39% of Australians use Facebook for general news, which is less than some countries.

In fact, you need only look to the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal to understand the role social media platforms like Facebook play in propagating news and shaping the public consensus, where both parties benefit significantly. Frankly, this clearly contradicts Easton’s attempt to downplay Facebook’s gains from news sharing. 

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Facebook is compromising its championed stance on freedom of speechCEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke passionately on freedom of speech last year at Georgetown University. Image: Facebook

This whole debacle between the Australian government and Facebook is troubling, and the proposed news ban is definitely worrisome and potentially a sign of worse things to come. 

Already, we are beginning to see greater repercussions. 

According to Bloomberg, Facebook’s terms of service are changing. Effective October 1st, the company warned it can remove anyone’s “content, services or information if we determine that doing so is reasonably necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook.”

What this means is that, contrary to Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s much-publicized idealistic stance on “freedom of speech,” the social media firm will now bow down to pressure from governments and remove content that could subject them to legal or regulatory action. 

Governments have already been pushing their own agendas on the social media platform for years, and have been usually faced with resistance. 

Thailand is telling the company to censor critics of the monarchy. Brazil says Facebook must shut down certain accounts – not just in Brazil, but globally. In India, Facebook is under fire for letting government officials leave content up that may violate its hate speech rules,” Bloomberg highlights.

Come October 1st, will we see Facebook scrubbing posts as per the whims of protesting governments?