Australia is adamant that it will pass a law saying that Facebook – and other digital platforms – cannot block publishers (such as the Sydney Morning Herald and Age) from sharing news on their sites. Facebook has responded by saying it can and will and goes on to say that while users can share news about friends and family, they will not be able to share international news from publishers.
The ACCC is saying that the new media code will bring transparency and fairness to a playing field tilted in the direction of the likes of Facebook and Google. This code will remedy this imbalance.
Facebook is saying this would give big publishers and unfair advantage and erode its revenues.
Australia is often the place that companies go to try things out and, in this case, try things on. It is far enough away that if it works, they can build on the win, internationally. If it fails, the publicity is probably not too damaging and they can walk away.
The fact is that “according to the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report, 39% of Australians use Facebook for general news, and 49% use Facebook for news about COVID-19”.
Which may point the way to the real reason that this battle is happening and is happening with the intensity that it is.
You would have thought a social media platform would be happy to allow its users to click through to relevant content on pressing issues of the day. Facebook Australia says that it has already directed 2 billion clicks towards publishers ‘free of charge’ in the first five months of this year. It also says that this is worth $200 million in lost revenue.
That may sound like an eye watering amount but the company probably makes that while Mark Zuckerberg is having breakfast.
So why the strong-arm tactics?
Perhaps this goes back to the question of whether Facebook is a platform or a publisher. If it is a platform, as it says it is, then there should be no question that it should allow any and all relevant, safe and informative content.
If it is a publisher, as the Government in the US believes it is, then the company would be regulated and punished for the fake and unpleasant content that it, er, publishes.
If Facebook in Australia behaves in a way that looks anti-competitive towards publishers, it does rather point to the company seeing a commercial threat there, which means, internally at least, it thinks it is a publisher.