Here is why Australia is at war with Facebook and the issues at stake

The Australian government’s news media code is a landmark legislation that would require Google and Facebook to negotiate with news outlets for payment

Big Tech is no monolith. Facebook is fighting Apple, as the latest operating system for iPhones and other i-gadgets allows the gadget’s owner to block any installed app tracking the owner’s online behaviour.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services, state health departments, local state governments, crisis centres and women’s shelters — the collateral damage in the war between Facebook and the Australian government has been widespread. As the social media giant followed through on its threat to ban sharing of news in the country over the government’s new media laws, several unintended targets got caught in the crossfire. Facebook even blocked its own page as the company went “to the mat” Down Under in a bid to fight government regulation.

What is the row about?

The Australian government’s news media code is a landmark legislation that would require Google and Facebook to negotiate with news outlets for payment. The purpose of the code is to protect public interest journalism in the country, according to the government.

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Also read: Facebook stops news feeds in Australia to oppose new media law

Publishers use Facebook to reach out to new audiences. Users too re-share a lot of news content on the social media site, adding to their virality. All this results in millions of visits for news sites referred from Facebook’s timeline.

Publishers also have agreements in place with Facebook to allow the social network to host their content in the form of Instant Articles.

Facebook has consistently argued that the new media bargaining code, which will force companies like it and Google to broker deals with Australian publishers to pay for linking to news content, will work against the publishers. William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, claimed in a blog post: “Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million.”

On Thursday Facebook carried out its threat. “Content on Facebook pages from news websites such as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, News Corp newspapers such as The Australian and The Herald Sun and all ABC content were made unavailable to users from early Thursday,” the SMH said.

“Articles published by online youth publication Junkee Media and satirical news websites The Betoota Advocate and The Chaser were also removed. Some Facebook groups run by news outlets have no articles on them.

“The ban also appears to have struck down the Facebook pages of government agencies, including the Bureau of Meteorology, SA Health, ACT Health and Queensland Health, in a move health experts have criticised given Australia is preparing to begin its COVID-19 vaccination program next week,” the newspaper reported.

Google’s response

Interestingly, Google has already singed a $30 million deal with Australia’s largest locally owned media company. Nine Entertainment’s deal to feature its news in Google products came on the “eve of the historic news media laws being debated in parliament”, The Guardian newspaper reported.

Nine is believed to have signed a letter of understanding with Google two days after Seven West Media became the first big media company to agree to terms with Google, the newspaper said.

Also read: West Virginia newspaper publisher sues Google, Facebook

Another small media company, Junkee Media, has also signed a letter of intent to curate news content for Google’s News Showcase product.”

Microsoft calls on others to follow Australian model

Microsoft president Brad Smith has said the Australian legislation “strengthens democracy” and urged other countries to implement similar codes.

“The legislation will redress the economic imbalance between technology and journalism by mandating negotiations between these tech gatekeepers and independent news organisations. The goal is to provide the news organisations with compensation for the benefit derived by tech gatekeepers from the inclusion of news content on their platforms,” he said in a blog post.

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