Facebook Restarts Australian News, After Government Agrees Changes

Facebook has ‘refriended’ Australian users and allowed them to once again share local and international news on its platforms (including Instagram).

The development comes after the Australian government agreed to change parts of of its controversial ‘media bargaining law’, with four amendments to the legislation, which has been cleared by the federal lower house and is expected to be approved by the Senate within a week’s time.

The concession is a significant victory for Facebook, which for three years has tried in vain to get the Australian government to understand the key difference between it and the Google Search Engine.

Facebook block

Matters came to a head earlier this month when the Aussie government officially introduced its landmark legislation (known as the media bargaining law) to legally force tech firms to pay local publishers and broadcasters for news and other content they utilise, or even link to, on their platforms.

If the parties cannot reach an agreement, a government-appointed panel will decide on the price.

Facebook last September bluntly said this was a bad piece of legislation and warned Aussie users it would prevent them sharing local and international news on its platforms (including Instagram), if Australia pressed ahead with this change.

The Australian government however took no notice, and pressed ahead.

As a result, Facebook last week blocked Australian users sharing local and international news on its platforms.

This triggered an outcry in certain quarters after charities, businesses and even certain Australian government websites found themselves blocked from sharing developments on Facebook.

After the blackout, the Australian prime minister Scott Morrison invited Facebook to “constructively engage” with his government.

Facebook however had been very clear in its explanation as to why it had opted to block news sharing in Australia.

William Easton, MD of Facebook Australia & New Zealand, explained that Google Search and online content was inextricably intertwined, as local publishers do not voluntarily provide their content to the search engine.

Instead, Google’s search engine automatically links to news articles as part of its fundamental job as a search engine.

However, local publishers in Australia willingly choose to post their news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue, Easton pointed out.

Australian concessions

And now after three years of trying to explain to the Aussie government that this new law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” it seems the message might be getting through.

This was despite the Australian government maintaining up until Monday that it would not change the legislation.

After a series of talks between Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a concession deal has been struck, Reuters has reported.

“Facebook has refriended Australia, and Australian news will be restored to the Facebook platform,” Frydenberg told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

Frydenberg said Australia had been a “proxy battle for the world” as other jurisdictions engage with tech companies over a range of issues around news and content.

“Facebook and Google have not hidden the fact that they know that the eyes of the world are on Australia, and that’s why they have sought I think to get a code here that is workable,” Frydenberg said.

Australia will now offer four amendments, which include a change to the proposed mandatory arbitration mechanism used when the tech giants cannot reach a deal with publishers over fair payment for displaying news content.

This involves an additional two-month mediation period before the government-appointed arbitrator intervenes, giving the parties more time to reach a private deal.

It also inserts a rule that an internet company’s existing media deals be taken into account before the rules take effect, a measure that Frydenberg said would encourage internet companies to strike deals with smaller outlets.

Facebook reaction

Facebook reportedly said it was satisfied with the revisions, which will need to be implemented in legislation currently before the parliament.

“After further discussions with the Australian government, we have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers,” explained Facebook VP of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown in a blog post.

“We’re restoring news on Facebook in Australia in the coming days,” wrote Brown. “Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.”

“It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Brown concluded.

The Australian government will introduce the amendments to Australia’s parliament on Tuesday.

The country’s two houses of parliament will need to approve the amended proposal before it becomes law.

Important concession?

The fact that Facebook has achieved these concessions from a government that until this week was insisting it would not change the law, is notable.

This is especially considering the fact that both Canada and the UK have already stated they will consider following Australia’s lead in forcing tech firms to pay for linking to content.

In the UK, it is worth remembering that in January this year Facebook signed deals with a number of news publishers, so UK users would begin to receive a tailored news service in a dedicated feed.

The UK is only second country in the world to gain Facebook News after it launched the service in the United States last year.

Google of course is pressing ahead with its own agreements with local publishers, as part of its ‘News Showcase’ scheme.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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