Facebook threatens to block Australian news if law goes ahead

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Two weeks ago, Google started showing users in Australia a popup message, warning that some of the company’s services might be impaired as a result of a proposed content-licensing law, which would require large digital platforms to pay publishers in return for linking to their articles. At the time, Facebook said it had no public comment on the proposed law, but that changed rather dramatically on Monday: the company’s senior executive in charge of Australian operations published a statement saying if the law goes ahead, Facebook will block publishers and people in Australia from sharing any local or international news on the social network or its photo-sharing service, Instagram. The statement said that the proposed legislation “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet and will do damage to the very news organisations the government is trying to protect.” The competition authorities who came up with it, Facebook said, “ignored important facts, most critically the relationship between the news media and social media and which one benefits most from the other.”

After Google released its own open letter to Australian users—or rather, two of them, since the head of YouTube in Australia also published one talking about how the law would affect the video-sharing service—the Australian government quickly posted a response, accusing the search giant of misstating the facts about the legislation and how it would impact Google’s services. And it did the same with Facebook on Monday, publishing a statement that said the company’s threat to block users in that country from sharing news was “ill-timed and misconceived.” The government release went on to say that the draft legislation, known as the News Media Bargaining Code, is designed to ensure that Australian news businesses, including independent and regional media, “can get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google.” The statement also noted that Facebook already pays some publishers for their news, and added that it hoped “all parties will engage in constructive discussions” while the draft law is going through the legislative process.

In the post where he mentioned the potential for a news ban, Will Easton, Facebook’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, called the idea that the company should pay publishers for their content “perplexing.” The new code “presumes that Facebook benefits most in its relationship with publishers, when in fact the reverse is true,” Easton wrote. “News represents a fraction of what people see in their News Feed and is not a significant source of revenue for us.” Just as Google often does when such things are mentioned, the Facebook executive spoke about the billions of clicks that the platform sends to publishers, who place their content on the social network voluntarily, and how those clicks are worth hundreds of millions in advertising revenue (this arithmetic, of course, ignores the fact that Google and Facebook have taken control of a majority of the online ad market, leaving traditional publishers scrambling for whatever crumbs are left). And Campbell Brown, the head of Facebook News, wrote about how much help the company has been providing to publishers through its $300 million Journalism Project.

The fact that the Australian government’s response specifically mentioned “independent, community, and regional media” as beneficiaries of the proposed law seemed designed to address one of the main complaints about it, which is that the primary beneficiaries will be billionaire media owners like Rupert Murdoch, who owns a significant proportion of the country’s newspapers and magazines and has been accusing Google and Facebook of “stealing” his content for a decade or more. Some media analysts, however, argue that if the Australian government—or any other government—wants to provide some help to the struggling mainstream media industry, forcing Google and Facebook to pay for linking to their content is the wrong way to go about it, since the actual economic value of those links is debatable. Better to levy some kind of digital tax if financial support is the goal, some argue, and then use that to create a public fund that media companies can access.

Google has been down this road a number of times, and is not afraid to play rough: in 2014, when Spain passed a law to force it to pay for news, the company removed the entire country from its news index. It did the same with German publishers after a law was passed there requiring it to pay for links, and many saw their traffic plummet as a result. In France, it said it would only show headlines, so that it wouldn’t have to pay for excerpts. Despite the saber-rattling by Google and Facebook, however, the Australian government seems to be holding firm so far. “We don’t respond to coercion or heavy-handed threats wherever they come from,” said Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg. “Our reforms to digital platforms are world-leading and following a groundbreaking 18-month inquiry.” And Rod Sims, the head of the country’s competition regulator, told the Financial Times that Facebook and Google would have to remove all international news from their platforms, not just Australian news, or they could face fines that might run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Here’s more on Google, Facebook, and news:

In May, CJR used its Galley discussion platform to hold a series of interviews with journalists and other experts about whether Google and Facebook should be compelled to pay publishers for their content. Some, like City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, argued that they should not, and that the digital platforms are not responsible for the evolution of the advertising market or its impact on mainstream media. Others, like Emily Bell, the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said that penalizing the digital platforms was a short-sighted move, and that we should be thinking about what kind of media market we want to have and then figuring out ways to get there, not just hitting Google and Facebook up for money because they happen to have a lot of it.

In an instalment of his subscription newsletter Stratechery written after Google responded to the proposed code, media and technology analyst Ben Thompson argued that the Australian government’s approach to the situation suffers from a number of flaws, and one is the idea that the platforms somehow owe publishers money. “It is just assumed that Google and Facebook ought to be paying publishers for their content, but any sort of rational evaluation would suggest that money should flow in the opposite direction,” he wrote. “Google and Facebook direct traffic to publishers, and in Facebook’s case in particular, that traffic comes from the publishers themselves and their readers placing links on the service.”

In an editorial about the Australian plans, Bloomberg said the country’s government is looking to blame Google and Facebook for the evolution of the media industry, something that was caused by the internet. “Journalism’s business model wasn’t broken by digital platforms. The internet unbundled many of the services — classified advertising, job postings, movie listings and so on — that newspapers once provided, while eroding the local or regional monopolies that made them so profitable,” the business information service wrote. “It offered consumers a wealth of free news and opinion and gave advertisers options and audiences that traditional publishers haven’t been able to match. It’s true that Facebook and Google have capitalized on these trends, but they hardly caused them.”

Other notable stories:

Facebook said it took down a network of accounts that it learned (via a tip from the FBI) were associated with the Internet Research Agency, a notorious Russian troll farm with connections to the Putin regime that was involved in trying to influence the 2016 election. The accounts often linked to a website called Peace Data that posted news, most of it focused on the environment and political stories. According to a report from NBC News, the website actually hired real-life journalism freelancers, including some from the US. Facebook also said it removed 26 fake Facebook accounts, 36 fake Instagram accounts, and 46 pages run by a Washington-based PR company called CLS Strategies.

In the three years since ESPN denounced then-staffer Jemele Hill’s tweets, in which she called President Trump a white supremacist, the network has all but ditched its “stick to sports” mandate and made an about face in how it treats activism and political commentary on its programs, according to a report from CNN. ESPN’s owner The Walt Disney Company announced a first-look deal with Colin Kaepernick in July that includes an exclusive docu-series with Hill as producer.”There’s no bigger indication that the times have changed,” Jim Miller, journalist and co-author of the 2011 book “Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” told CNN.

Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Washington Post, writes about the paper’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. “At their core, all presidential conventions are pure propaganda events, from which any actual news has been painstakingly purged in advance, in order to forestall any possibility of distracting from the unanimity of the party’s chosen message. They are the political versions of a new iPhone unveiling event. They have even less news value than the tightly scripted marketing of Super Bowl week.”

Jimmy Jenkins, a reporter for Arizona NPR affiliate KJZZ who has covered the state’s criminal justice system for the past four years and built a strong relationship with the state Department of Corrections, found that things changed suddenly in July, according to the American Prospect. He learned that the department had changed its media policy, drastically restricting inmate and staff communications with the press, with the threat of disciplinary action for any prison staff who disobeyed. Although media were previously allowed to interview inmates in person, by phone, or by mail, journalists can now only send questions and receive answers through the mail, the American Prospect report says.

Wired magazine writes about Dina Srinivasan, an antitrust scholar who argues in a new paper that Google’s advertising marketplace is so large and dominant that it should be regulated in the same way that the stock market is. “A former digital advertising executive, Srinivasan gained attention last year for her paper “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook,” which laid out a novel theory of why Facebook’s market dominance can be bad for users even as it offers a free product. Now she aims to do something similar for Google—specifically, for the sprawling advertising empire that accounts for the vast majority of the company’s revenue.”

Andrea Wenzel and Letrell Deshan Crittenden, fellows at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, write about their research into BIPOC communities and news. “Over the past year, we have been following two communities: Chambersburg, a small town in Pennsylvania, and Maywood, a suburb in Illinois. These cases, while very different, illustrate the need for journalism’s reckoning regarding racial justice to extend beyond major cities to issues faced by BIPOC communities in small towns and suburbs. In Chambersburg, local coverage is virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, in Maywood, coverage is provided by BIPOC-owned and -led media that have historically received little support or attention.”

Nieman Storyboard interviewed Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Stephen Robert Morse and Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery about the different ways in which they covered the same cold case murder, a 34-year-old hate crime in which Timothy Wayne Coggins, a 23-year-old Black man, was found dead in the woods in Georgia. He had been stabbed dozens of times, an “X” had been carved into his stomach, and he had been dragged behind a truck, then left to die.

Waubgeshig Rice, an author and journalist from the Wasauksing First Nation in Canada, writes an open letter to indigenous journalists in Walrus magazine. “The scope of racism at all levels of the journalism system—from the newsroom all the way up to executive offices—may have shocked you,” he writes. “Before I urge you to stay with it, I can’t sugar-coat the hostile realities of working in mainstream Canadian journalism. You will feel alone. You will become very frustrated. You will want to give up. Many times. The dreams you once held for a long career of making change and doing stories that matter could very well evaporate.”

Nexstar Media Group, the Texas-based TV station owner that acquired cable network WGN America as part of its 2019 purchase of Tribune Media, is launching a new prime-time newscast called “NewsNation,” a nightly three-hour show that the company says will offer a neutral, opinion-free presentation of the day’s events, according to a report in the LA Times. Sean Compton, executive vice president for WGN America, told the Times that the company has done extensive research that determined there is an appetite for straight-ahead TV news in the evening as an alternative to opinion hosts such as Fox News star Sean Hannity and CNN’s Don Lemon.

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