The Australian parliament is poised to pass a landmark media law that would make Google and Facebook pay news publishers for displaying their content. The Australian law is separate to a deal Facebook made to pay mainstream UK news outlets millions of pounds a year to license their articles, but has a similar motivation. The legislation, which will be debated this week, is designed to support Australian public interest journalism and is backed by all the nation’s media companies, big and small.
Regulation was needed to ensure journalism was properly funded after the digital behemoths took the lion’s share of advertising revenue away from traditional media: for every $100 of online advertising spend, $53 goes to Google, $28 to Facebook and $19 to everyone else. [italics mine]
Facebook threatened to block Australians from sharing news and Google ran a public campaign against the media code arguing it was unfair and that it would “break search”. At a parliamentary inquiry last month Google Australia’s managing director, Mel Silva, threatened to remove search from Australia. But the government stood firm and continued to push the legislation through a committee and into parliament. Silva said the proposed news code was untenable and would set a “dangerous precedent” of paying for links.
The law is now enacted, here is what is happening today:
On Thursday morning Facebook began preventing Australian news sites from posting, while also stopping Australian users from sharing or viewing content from any news outlets, both Australian and international.
The social media giant said it made the decision in response to the news media bargaining code currently before the Senate, which would force Facebook and Google to negotiate with news companies for payment for content. Facebook says it did not intend to ban government pages.
While the ban was only meant to target Australian news publishers, dozens of pages run by key government agencies, community pages, union pages, charity organisations and politicians were also blocked for several hours.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology, which uses its Facebook page to deliver climate updates and severe weather warnings, was blocked. So too was the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services, which earlier this month was issuing evacuation warnings for a bushfire that destroyed 86 homes in the Perth hills. In a statement, DFES said it had contacted Facebook “and they have assured us they will restore the page as a priority”.
State health departments, where daily coronavirus figures and information about potential exposure sites are listed, were deleted, as was the official page for the governments of the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Tasmania.
The sudden national blackout of legitimate information sources appeared to some to expose the hollowness of Facebook’s prior claims that it was unable to suppress hate speech or pages spreading dangerous misinformation, and its failure to respond to reports of abuse. With sufficient motivation, like the prospect of having to pay to link to news content, the social media giant was able to act swiftly, they said.
As Australia prepares to begin the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, state health departments, including SA Health and Queensland Health, were unable to post. St Vincent’s Health in Melbourne said it was “extremely concerning” its Facebook page had been blocked “during a pandemic and on the eve of crucial Covid vaccine distribution”.
Health minister Greg Hunt said he was “profoundly shocked” that health organisations, including Bowel Cancer Australia and the Kids Cancer Project had been affected.
The shadow health minister, Mark Butler, said it was “completely irresponsible” behaviour by Facebook, and the pages needed to be restored.“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” he tweeted. “Australians need to hear from credible voices in the vaccine rollout. This is completely irresponsible from Facebook. The Morrison government needs to fix this today.”