Why Facebook is threatening to block Australians from sharing news

A new law from the Australian government would force Facebook and Google to pay publishers. It’s already having unintended consequences.


September 2, 2020

The Australian government announced plans to roll out a media law that would force “digital platforms” (e.g., Google and Facebook) to pay publishers for the content they provide.

Now, Facebook is threatening to block the sharing of news in Australia.

Australia wants to support new media, but the process is messy  

Tech analyst Ben Thompson combed through the draft regulation written by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) and highlighted a few of its finer points. The law:

  • Defines “digital platforms” in a way that only encompasses Facebook and Google (likely because they have the most $$$)
  • Aims to address what it calls a “bargaining power imbalance” between digital platforms and publishers
  • Declares that these platforms would have to give publishers a 28-day heads-up on any algorithm changes that could affect referral traffic to news

Thompson calls the law a “shakedown” that is full of bad ideas. But this isn’t to say that a law like this has no merit: the value of journalism — particularly on platforms plagued by misinformationshould be recognized and protected.

News isn’t a huge revenue driver for these digital platforms

Media researcher Rasmus Kleis Nielsen notes that news makes up <5% of time spent online, and uses that as a rough estimate for Facebook and Google. These platforms depend more on user-generated content (e.g., Tiger King memes and staged vacation photos) than journalism.

If public officials want to support news, Nielsen suggests alternate solutions, like subsidies for private media and better resources for nonprofits.

Governments versus Big Tech is the new norm 

Australia seems to be taking a page out of the playbook of the EU, which unilaterally set a major law (GDPR) and expected Big Tech to comply.

There’s one big difference there: the EU is a huge market (440m+ people; $15.6T GDP) and Australia — bless its soul — isn’t (25m; $1.4T).

And even with its size and clout, the EU has failed to make Big Tech pay publishers.

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