Facebook will reverse news block in AustraliaFebruary 23, 2021
In the face of an Australian bill that would force it to pay publishers for the news content that surfaces on its platform, Facebook last week made a dramatic move: On Wednesday night,. After several days of discussion between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Australia’s treasurer Josh Frydenberg, the social media giant on Monday committed to end the standoff and bring news back to its platform.
“The government has been advised by Facebook that it intends to restore Australian news pages in the coming days,” Frydenberg said in a statement Monday.
Facebook will bring news back to Australia not out of generosity, but rather because it says it got sufficient concessions from the government. Frydenberg and Australian Communications Minister Paul Fletcher pledged to make changes to the News Media Bargaining Code, the contentious bill in question, which they assured will “strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers.”
Facebook’s blockade meant that, since last Wednesday night PT time, news has vanished from the platform in Australia. Brand pages for outlets like CNET or The New York Times went completely blank, while users were restricted from posting news content if they tried. The feeds of Australia’s 11 million users have been completely bereft of news. It was , with multiple non-news pages, like the Bureau of Meteorolgy and South Australia Health, also having their pages wiped clean.
Under the proposed bill, Facebook and Google would be made to negotiate with local publishers over payment for the news content that surfaces on Facebook’s feed and Google’s search. If no agreement could be reached in 90 days, government-appointed arbitrators would hand down a binding compensation agreement. Publishers would also need to be given advanced notice of changes to algorithms that would affect how their content is ordered and prioritized.
After balking in February and threatening to pull search out of Australia, Google has since made several big-money deals with publishers. That includes Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and local giant Nine Entertainment, two of the biggest companies to lobby for the bill. But just as Google agreed to join the negotiating table, Facebook went the other way, blocking news with no warning.
In a press release, Frydenberg listed some of the ammendments the government has agreed to make to the News Media Bargaining Code. The first states the News Media Bargaining Code must consider whether a company has made “a significant contribution” to the country’s news industry through deals with publishers before it’s officially designated as a “digital platform” in the bill.
In other words, Facebook is hoping that if it cuts enough deals with local publishers it could shield itself from being designated one of the “digital platforms” the bill targets.
“As a result of these changes, we can now work to further our investment in public interest journalism and restore news on Facebook for Australians in the coming days,” said Campbell Brown, head of Facebook’s Global News Partnerships division, in a statement.
The News Media Bargaining Code has been in the works for years. After being drafted by Australia’s competition watchdog, it entered the House of Representatives in December. In late January a senate committee began an inquiry into its feasability, during which time Google said it may block Australia from using its search engine if the bill becomes law. Google was concerned that it would be forced to pay for the news links and snippets that surface following search inquiries.
After the senate committee recommended the bill’s passage through parliament, Google took a more concilliatory stance. Through News Showcase, a feature on its News app that highlights stories from participating outlets, it signed deals with Seven West and Nine Entertainment reported to be worth over AU$30 million ($23 million) annually. News of a global agreement between Google and News Corp. followed soon after.
Ads on Google’s search homepage that once warned Australian users that the News Media Bargaining Code would “make search worse” now paraded the fact that Google had signed nearly 80 publications up to News Showcase.
But as Google was signing agreements with Australian publishers, Facebook seemingly opted for the nuclear option. With no notice, Australians woke up last Thursday to find themselves restricted from posting news stories to their feeds. Yet as final as the outcome felt, there were signs it was merely a bargaining chip placed on the table by Facebook.
“Today I had a further conversation with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg,” Frydenberg tweeted last Friday. “We talked through their remaining issues and agreed our respective teams would work through them immediately. We’ll talk again over the weekend.”
Facebook’s decision to return news to Australians is the fruit of that labor, but it’s not yet clear which side conceded more.