Over the last few years, some of the most famous ‘Big Tech’ companies (i.e. Facebook and Google) have earnt more profit than the total GDP of some entire countries! This indirect comparison highlights not just how profitable (and by extension – powerful) these companies have become, but also, just how much we depend on them. Long gone are the days when Facebook was just a great way to stay connected with your friends and to send the occasional message. Facebook for many of us is where we promote our businesses, organise community events, go shopping, and for most users is (or was?) the primary portal through which we receive our news.
However, all this changed recently following failed negotiations between Facebook and the Government regarding a new media law. The result? Facebook unilaterally pulled all news publications originating from Australia off the platform.
What’s this new law?
It is this last factor that has thrust the tense relationship between the Australian Government and Facebook into the limelight. The Australian government (and some other governments for that matter) want to ensure that authors of original news content are paid for their work when this work is shared or consumed via Facebook and other digital platforms. In this vein, they have put forward and passed the “News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code Bill 2020” which aims to address the disproportionate bargaining power that Big Tech has, namely – if you don’t like it, go somewhere else.
Protecting or forgetting the little guy?
On the surface, this might seem like a positive move protecting “the little guy”. This is precisely the case if you consider Rupert Murdoch and his massive media conglomerate, News Corp Australia, as “little guys”. It is in part Rupert Murdoch’s lobbying and pressure that has to lead to the government putting forward and passing these motions in the first place, and in part, you get this feeling from looking at the wording of the Bill itself.
What does Big Tech and Government say about the law?
Facebook insists that the law violates the fundamental principle of its platform, namely: that whilst others share news and resources on its platform, Facebook itself, does not, and so shouldn’t have to pay for it. Or in their own words, Facebook believes the legislation will “seek to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.”
Not so fast says the government and its supporters. They point out that news shared on Facebook leads to more people using and spending time on Facebook. This in turn drives traffic to Facebook, which increases Ad revenue for the multinational.
In some ways, it feels like a classic David Vs Goliath, apart from the fact that it is not that clear just who is Goliath, or David, or if they are the only ones in the fight, for that matter.
Print Media is dead. Long live Digital?
Herein lies part of the issue. Rather than David vs Goliath, it appears to be more the case of “old versus new”. Namely, traditional news media, TV and Print, is losing out to the ‘new’ big kid on the block. Some might say that instead of trying to compete with it, they have lobbied the government to protect an industry that has had its day! By passing such a law, are we in effect putting in protectionist policies that will only benefit large media organisations?
Setting the Precedent
After passing the bill (a global first) Facebook countered by making good on its pledge to pull all news sources, and in one fell swoop, Facebook blocked Australians from sharing any news links, Australian news publications from hosting their content on the platform, and the rest of us from sharing links to Australian news sites.
Unfortunately, and unwisely, in their rush to be mighty, Facebook culled a huge amount of community-based organisations and support services. This includes remote communities that coordinate and communicates over Facebook, domestic violence advocacy groups, and Emergency Services pages. Not only that, but by removing ‘quality sources’ of information, such as that pertaining to Covid, not only are you denying access to critical information, but it also allows more dubious sources of information to become more prevalent. Overall, the optics of this countermove were terrible.
You've been Zucked
Between the conglomerations and community groups, is the middle tier Australian business such as a www.manofmany.com.au which relies hugely on its stories being shared (for free) on Facebook and on other online platforms. Man of Many had no beef in this argument and was simply adding its content to the platform, and in an instant has its whole marketing strategy ripped up overnight. With about 10 employees, Many of Many represents one of many thousands of small to medium businesses that find themselves in this ‘lose lose’ situation, not of their making.
It shows clearly how Facebook may respond to any form of attempted regulation in the future, and people are not happy about it. Sensing public (and global opinion) was firmly against them (with the hashtag ‘you’ve been Zucked’ trending on Twitter), Mark must have thought that he may have overplayed his hand, which is easy to do when you are used to holding all the cards.
They may be changing the world, but that doesn't mean they run it.
The whole ongoing PR disaster illustrates how Facebook may respond to any form of attempted regulation in the future, and people are not happy about it. Sensing public (and global) opinion was firmly against them (with the hashtag ‘you’ve been Zucked’) trending on Twitter, Mark must have thought that he may have overplayed his hand, which is easy to do when you are used to holding all the cards.
Saving Face: The Middle Ground
And like a high stakes poker game, it would seem that Facebook has blinked first.
Facebook confirmed yesterday that it will restore Australian news pages “in the coming days” following amendments to the News Media and Digital Bargaining Code. These amendments are slight and allow for an extended mediation period when applying the code and also allows Facebook to strike independent deals with publishers too. Overall these changes seem cosmetic and are more likely to be a Facesaving manoeuvre (pun intended!)
Australia’s 13 million users will now be able to share and view news from Australia and around the world as they always used too. Large media companies will soon begin to be remunerated for the work generated from the thousands of journalists they employ and the shares that derive from it.
Make no mistake, the new law, and Facebook reaction, does nothing to help you, me or small businesses, and the overarching problem still remains. For the internet to remain “free” in both the philosophical and financial sense, high-quality news and information must be freely available. At the same time, history shows that protecting historic gatekeepers and diminishing industries will eventually end up harming the little guy, whoever that ends up being. Safe to say, Mark and Rupert, are not amongst them.
It should be noted, Bleo Media was not paid by Facebook for this article!