The recent dispute between Facebook, Google and the Australian government and the issues surrounding this confrontation gives an insight into the current landscape between the large social media corporations and the traditional press. Richard Newcombe reflects on the implications.
It shines a light on aspects of the difficulties many Remainers found in the presentation by media sources in this country of the different issues that arose during the campaigns leading up to the 2016 referendum - and then subsequently to hold a second referendum.
On 18 February 2021, Australians woke to find that they could not access or share any news stories on their Facebook or Google accounts. Facebook argued it had been forced to block Australian news in response to the new proposed legislation. The Australian government’s news code aims to set up a ‘fairer’ negotiation process between Facebook and Google over the value and purchase of news content.
Already Facebook and Google have deals with different news publishers, both large and small, but as Facebook’s Vice President of Global News Partnerships, Campbell Brown, has stated: “We do not want to be subjected to forced negotiation with news providers not of our choosing.”
If the Australian government proposals had gone ahead, and any negotiations between the Tech companies and the news companies had failed, then the matter would be arbitrated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
However Facebook’s move was strongly criticised as it also initially restricted government health and emergency services pages.
The Australian government’s action has been seen by some as a ‘levelling up’ exercise, possibly pushed by news press moguls where for many years traditional newspapers have declined in popularity in contrast to the ever-increasing use of social media by users to read news sources. As well as a drop in circulation this has resulted in a long-term decline in revenues received by news publishers from advertising.
On 24 February, Facebook removed the blocking of news on its platform. This is because the Australian government has, after further discussions Facebook, agreed that a two month mediation period will take place before government–enforced arbitration kicks in - and also that Facebook can show they make a significant financial contribution to local journalism.
Beyond the Australian border
Since Facebook is a global company, the outcome of this confrontation is being watched carefully by governments across the world.
There is speculation that Canada and the European Union may follow Australia’s lead in considering what aspects of social media can be considered for regulation. With an approximate EU population of five hundred million, many of whom use Facebook, this is a confrontation the tech giant will want to avoid.
In the United States, with a new Democrat president and the difficulties experienced in the recent presidential elections, the need for other aspects of regulation will be contemplated. Influential Democratic Congressman David Cicilline has stated that “Facebook is not compatible with democracy”.
The pattern of news presentation will differ from country to country. The situation in the United Kingdom will therefore be unique with traditional news press being often owned by a small number of very wealthy individuals, some not UK citizens, where views on an issue may not always be balanced.
The growing pressuring in some democratic countries to begin to regulate aspects of the expansion of social media many may feel is long overdue. However, the outcome of this particular attempt by the Australian government has shown that this approach may not be appropriate for the UK. The continuing influence on news presentation by the large news corporations will continue through social media as well as in print.
As Nick Hopkinson in his recent article in the New European (The rocky road to Rejoin – 10 January 2021) states there is a need for a more balanced presentation of news in the UK as what appears to be our predominantly right-wing media tends to misinform and inflame public opinion, thus undermining public support in the UK for EU membership and/or closer relations with Europe.
The move by Australia is not what those who seek a better balance of news presentation in the UK want. However, the beginning of processes whereby democratic governments start to consider regulating Facebook and similar platforms in how they influence public opinion will be welcomed.
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.