Facebook Unblocks News to Australia in an Unfathomable Media Fracas
Posted on February 26, 2021
It’s over. Around 3am Australian Eastern Standard Time on Friday, February 26th, 2021, Facebook allowed Australians to read and share news links on its platform once again.
For just on a week now, Facebook had banned news, news pages and news links in Australia and not a single journalistic source had been able to explain what went on and why.
Some sources told you it impacted established media companies like News Corp’s cable TV Sky News Australia and its Herald Sun newspaper; Nine Entertainment’s Freeview TV stations and its old Fairfax papers like The Age and Australian Financial Review; Seven West Media’s Freeview TV stations and its West Australian paper; and the Guardian et al. And they were right.
Some sources told you it impacted small regional newspapers too, whether corporate properties or independents. And they were right.
Some sources told you it erroneously impacted charity organisations, government departments, community and healthcare websites. And they were right.
And I told you it impacted individual websites belonging to writers like me totally unaffiliated with any news service or government office and I was right.
But no single media source had painted a full picture. That’s because in all honesty, no one outside the Australian government and the C-Suites involved understood what on earth had been unleashed, though all called it a “Media Bargaining Code” and knew it would be a world’s first.
Indeed, after lengthy battles with Google and Facebook an Australian media bargaining code will soon start having passed through both houses of Australia’s parliament. It will also have a new name: The Mandatory Bargaining Code.
It’s so “mandatory” in fact, that it may never be used.
You see, Facebook these last couple of days managed to negotiate a good faith clause likely obviating the code’s arbitration conditions and that’s why it reopened its Australian doors. So, what’s this all then been about?
The answer is in the legislation. The Australian government sought the power to examine social media websites and look at the way they host, interact with and distribute news content made by others: distribution including the way they rank, curate and make such content interactive.
Social media companies considered egregious as such would then be deemed “digital platforms” under the law, egregiousness being defined by a platform having a:
Significant bargaining power imbalance [over] Australian news businesses.
The purpose of which would be to ensure that all social platforms made:
A significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through agreements relating to news content of Australian news businesses (including agreements to remunerate those businesses for their news content).
Or to put it another way, to largely ensure that News Corp came out in good shape.
You see, the way this code is structured, independent writers and journalists like me will never see a dollar from it. To be covered, a news business must be “registered” as such and declare $150,000 in revenue per annum. Now, some YouTubers might fit this picture, but they’ll be rare.
Further, Facebook believes it’s secured an independent ability for itself to determine what a “news business” is as well.
Yet, none of this stopped Facebook from blocking me this week with Rupert Murdoch.
Look, I’m happy with this outcome though I still hold that media businesses should focus on monetising themselves first before blaming others for their losses.
Like nearly every website does, I specifically point mine to search engines like Google to make my writing discoverable. I choose to link my work to Facebook as desired—and I want others to share it too if ever I’ve touched a need or nerve with them.
In the long run, this drama, while damaging Facebook’s credibility, did help social media platforms. Google and Facebook are planning the unveiling of their own in-house news channels that will sit bespoke journalism alongside the content of others. The outcome will be interesting, though I’ll continue go for my news straight to the source.
But in the case of News Corp, a business that already runs paywalls for the bulk of its online newspaper mastheads, it’s garnered a huge win allowing it to double dip the market: one payment from a social platform for a click or link, and another from its readers via a subscription to read the full result. For the big news players, it means tens of millions of dollars—all negotiated without a code ever needing to be put in place.
While the code was marketed by the Australian Government as a means to secure the future of Australian journalism, there’s no proof that any money raised will reach writers’ pockets or buoy their resources. As Tama Leaver, professor of Internet Studies, said to ABC News Online today:
There’s no guarantee the news companies will use the money for public interest journalism, or any kind of journalism at all.
Indeed, after decades of mergers and cost cuts at the coalface, there’s every reason to suppose companies will simply bank these bonuses to offset years of billion-dollar loses.
So, we’re back to the same old news muddle as it’s always been. Of mastheads believing social platforms will drive audiences to their TV shows and websites; of mastheads instead seeing viewers and readers abandon them for a quick free online fix elsewhere; and of social platforms equally paranoid of their own roles in this information ecosystem—starting as they did free and eventually seeking revenue once public to bolster share prices beyond all rationale.
If anything surprising has come about in this way, it’s Twitter earlier today that announced its plans to roll out a new “Super Follows” feature.
It believes there’s a market where users will pay to access Tweets from people and entities they choose to Follow. After all, why should Twitter miss out in this new era of media monetisation?
Oh, have they read that one wrong. The Twitterverse immediately responded with the trend #RIPTwitter.
Most users you see, just want a plain Tweet editing feature. No bells or whistles. They just want something useful, and they’d like it for free.
© 2021 Adam Parker.
Picture Credit: © 2021 Adam Parker.