Facebook blocked the entire nation of Australia from sharing news on its platform last week. The social media company argued it took the drastic action in reaction to a disagreement over planned Australian government legislation. Although the company finally restored Australian news pages after a five-day standoff and reaching an agreement, the whole episode is a sobering reminder of the enormous power the company possesses and the degree of harm it could cause with a few simple clicks.
Last summer, the Australian government introduced a draft “news media bargaining code,” which sought to address the “bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms, specifically Google and Facebook.” The government decided such a law was necessary because surveys find more than half of Australians used Facebook as their top source of news.
Facebook and Google’s near-monopoly leaves little room for traditional media to compete. Indeed, along with Google, Facebook controls about 81 cents of every dollar of digital advertising in Australia. Arguing that Facebook and Google should pay their “fair” share to other media outlets for their journalism, and that a vibrant, competitive news industry is crucial for the longevity of democracy, Australia is attempting to address the imbalance between traditional news media and tech companies.
The Need for Clear Standards
The Australian government’s legislation doesn’t mandate how much tech companies have to pay for content that appears in their news feeds and search results. Instead, it establishes a negotiation framework that allows news organizations and tech companies to “bargain in good faith and reach binding agreements.”
If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, the legislation ensures an independent arbiter will step in. The proposed legislation — which has passed Australia’s House of Representatives and is now waiting for a vote in the Senate — also sets “clear and workable minimum standards for digital platforms including requiring 14 days advance notice of deliberate algorithm changes that impact news media businesses.”
Google and Facebook oppose the legislation and initially threatened to leave Australia, arguing that sharing news content and links has benefited publishers more than it has their platforms. Microsoft, however, expressed full support for the proposed legislation. Representatives at some publications, such as Quillette Co-founder Clair Lehmann, have also voiced opposition:
It’s a stupid set of laws anyway. What happens when a citizen captures a newsworthy event on their phone & uploads it to Twitter? Will they get paid for their news? What if MSM reuse it? Happens every day.
Google softened its stance by recently announcing that it reached agreements with several Australian media outlets, including News Corp and Nine Entertainment, to share a portion of advertising revenues and pay for certain content.
Facebook, however, initially took the “my way or the highway” approach. It imposed a news ban in Australia. Since last week, Australian users have been “blocked from viewing and sharing local and international news, while local publishers are restricted from sharing or posting any links on their pages.”
Facebook’s ban is so sweeping that many non-news organizations in Australia have been blocked too, including an organization for victims of domestic violence, a Christian media and art organization, the Australia Trade Council, and even Facebook’s own webpage.
‘As Arrogant as They Were Disappointing’
The worst harm Facebook’s ban has caused is to prevent government agencies such as fire departments from sharing fire warnings and health departments from sharing important information related to COVID-19. This goes to show Facebook is so obsessed with getting its way that it is willing to endanger public health and safety in the middle of a global pandemic.
In a statement posted on Facebook (ironically), Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Facebook’s actions to “unfriend Australia” were “ as arrogant as they were disappointing.” Facebook finally restored its news pages in the country, after putting Australia through a five-day ban, and got the government to change the proposed legislation, including demanding “an additional round of negotiation with media companies before binding arbitration kicks in.”
Unfortunately, what happened in Australia isn’t the first time that Facebook has shown us that its enormous power could be a destructive force in a democracy. Last October, Facebook intentionally limited the distribution of The New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden’s questionable financial dealings in Ukraine and China. Many regarded Facebook’s suppression of important news related to a family member of the Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden as a form of election interference.
Facebook insisted it did so to prevent the spread of “misinformation,” but after the November election, Hunter Biden himself confirmed that he was under federal investigation for his financial dealings in Ukraine and China. This proved The New York Post’s story was not “misinformation,” but many American voters were prevented from knowing about it because of Facebook’s interference.
After the Jan.6 riot at the U.S. capitol, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg blamed smaller social media platforms such as Parler and Gab, which were popular among conservative users. Yet data collected by a liberal watchdog shows Facebook bears much greater culpability for the riot than Parler, because the riot “would have still happened without Parler, but not without Facebook.” Rather than taking responsibility, Facebook joined other big tech companies to de-platform Parler, essentially removing a small but fast-growing competitor from the market.
Tending to the ‘Gears of Democracy’
Adding insult to injury, while Facebook is censoring political speech its leftist employees don’t support, it is actively promoting disinformation and propaganda for authoritarian regimes. In Myanmar, where the military staged a coup and arrested democratically elected civilian leaders, Facebook has let the military use its platform to recruit soldiers, promote businesses backed by the military, and even spread hate speech against the Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.
Although Facebook is banned in China, five out of six top news pages on Facebook are China’s state-own media outlets, including China Daily and CGTN. A Press-Gazette investigation found that Facebook has not only allowed China’s state-owned media to post misinformation and propaganda but also helped promote this propaganda to millions of people in the west.
For example, for less than $400, Facebook helped China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, to promote a hit-piece that accuses Western governments and journalists of “lying” about the government’s human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China.
For less than $500, Facebook promoted a video by CGTN, a state-owned TV station that was banned in the United Kingdom recently, pretending the internment camps for Uighur youth are “harmless” boarding schools. With Facebook’s marketing sway, this CGTN video reached more than 1 million people in the west — a good return on investment for the Chinese Communist Party, but an insult to humanity.
Jason Kint, the chief executive of U.S. publisher Digital Content Next, condemned the move:
It should be outrageous to anyone who cares about the gears of democracy, even humanity, that in the very same week Facebook has announced it will reduce legitimate political news on its platform, it is booking revenue from Chinese state TV covering up genocide.
Governments Around the World Have Taken Notice
What Facebook did to Australia has drawn worldwide condemnation. The head of Germany’s BDZV news publishers’ association called for governments all over the world “to limit the market power of the gatekeeper platforms.” The European Union is working on a new rule, similar to Australia’s news code, stating “search engines and news aggregators should pay news sites for links.”
As Lehmann rightly points out, it’s correct to be wary of more government regulations because what government bureaucrats come up with is often ineffective, counter-productive, or worse. There is another solution, however, suggested by Stephen Scheeler, the former Facebook CEO for Australia and New Zealand, who’s urging Australians to delete the Facebook app, because “for Facebook and Mark [Zuckerberg], it is too much about the money and the power.”
As hard as it may be initially, all of us should stop using Facebook, cancel our accounts, and delete the app from our smartphones once and for all. We will have to either find other ways to share news and cat pictures or build new platforms. The only way we can escape Facebook’s control and reject its power over us and our society is to “unfriend” it.