Stand-off as Facebook makes its 'significantly different' point

Feb 17, 2021 at 06:24 pm by Staff


In the ongoing battle between traditional media and Big Tech, one skirmish was apparently resolved last night, while another took a new turn (writes Peter Coleman).

News Corp has opted for a global agreement with Google in place of the national ones announced by Australian publishers, the most recent of which being a $30 million deal with Nine Entertainment. It's doubtful whether we shall ever know what News settled for, but chief executive Robert Thomson seemed pretty pleased with himself and bosses Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, while sharing praise with Australia's regulator the ACCC, the prime minister and treasurer.

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps miffed by all the attention the search company had been getting, has decided to introduce us to life without news on Facebook. What IBISWorld analyst Liam Harrison described as "the nuclear option".

Personally, I look forward to it, and believe that the social media site may be the biggest loser. It's always been a love-hate thing, and the latest move shows that Zuckerberg wants an unrestricted relationship, on his terms or not at all, a self-appointed president of the world unilaterally deciding what is best for him is best for us.

Trouble is, politics have reared their usually ugly head, with Australian Labor convinced that the government should abandon the fight, just when there were signs it might prevail.

There have been some pretty half-baked remarks from politicians this morning - most of them premature and ill-informed - and a promise of a statement from treasurer Josh Frydenberg shortly. The statement by MP Michelle Rowland that 40 per cent of Australians access their online news through search and social media, and "those people are missing out", is true not because the news sources have disappeared; only that Facebook has withdrawn from the game to try to make a point of its own.

It'll be an interesting experiment, and it doesn't have to turn out as Zuckerberg wants or expects. Those of us (your scribe included) who do not look to Facebook for news - or much else for that matter - know that there are other sources, for most of which the provenance is known. It's true - as a Nine spokesperson said this morning - that "nobody benefits from this decision as Facebook will now be a platform for misinformation to rapidly spread without balance".

My email feed from News' Courier-Mail points out that Queensland Health's Facebook has been shut down during the midst of a pandemic, while that of the weather bureau has been wiped during the cyclone season. As IBISWorld analyst Liam Harrison put it, "the social network giant has triggered the nuclear option".

It doesn't seem they have done so with much discretion, closing the sites of sources - such as Queensland Health - which wouldn't have been party to the bargaining code in any case.

The official notification came in a blog post early this morning from Facebook's ANZ managing director Will Easton, who said the code - which was passed by MPs last night - "fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content". He pointed to the "significantly different" relationships Facebook and Google had with publishers, the former "voluntarily providing and sharing" news on Facebook, while they didn't have a choice with Google.

I doubt whether senator Matt Canavan had done much homework before suggesting "some high-tech Australians created a social platform" to which everyone should then flock. That is, if the boffins haven't left the country before the drawbridge was lifted. However, comparisons between New Zealand's Stuff and the social media giants might still make interesting reading, and provide some support for Canavan's idea, given a favourable legislative environment.

Australia's battle with Big Tech has only just begun. Apart from the news media bargaining code, there's the monopoly on ad tech, which the media seems so far to have found too complicated to have properly explained to the public.

And now there's clearly Facebook's uncompromising non-negotiation stance, with too much at stake to give in to them now.

Peter Coleman


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