Facebook and the news after Australia: What happens now?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The Australian version of Facebook got decidedly less newsy a week ago, after the social-media giant suddenly blocked Australian news outlets from posting their stories to its platform, and also blocked regular users in that country from sharing news from any media outlet anywhere in the world (traffic to Australian news sites fell by as much as 20 percent, according to Axios). This move came in response to a law that requires large platforms like Facebook and Google to pay for every news article carried on their networks, something that both companies said fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between their platforms and news publishers (the law was passed by the Australian parliament on Wednesday). To critics of the company, including some members of the government, the move was just another sign of how Facebook has too much power, and needs to be regulated. To defenders of the open internet, including World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners Lee, it was just the opposite: a sign of how governments are over-reaching when it comes to legislation aimed at curbing platform power and/or funding journalism.

This week, the Australian front in this war over payment for news cooled down dramatically, when Facebook said Monday that it was removing the block on sharing in that country, as a result of amendments to the law. But the war itself shows little sign of stopping. If anything, Australia’s pressure on Google and Facebook, and the resulting settlement with the latter — as vague as it may be in practice — only seems to have increased the interest other countries have in trying to repeat Australia’s success (Microsoft is also trying to help push this kind of legislation, likely for competitive reasons). At the end of the day, citizens lost the ability to post news for a few days, but media companies are likely to get a windfall as a result (broadcasters like Seven and Nine have already gotten $30 million each from Google). Facebook has committed to investing more than $1 billion in the media industry worldwide over the next three years. Canada has said it is interested in pursuing legislation similar to that proposed by Australia, and legislators in the European Union seem similarly enamored of the code and its ability to squeeze the platforms.

As CJR explained recently, the Australian law is a tougher version of legislation introduced in France and Germany several years ago, after the passage by the EU of new copyright rules on what are called “neighboring rights,” which apply to aggregators like Google News. The French and German variations of those laws have had mixed results, in part because they are difficult to enforce. In France earlier this week, antitrust regulators released a report that accused Google of failing to comply with the rules requiring it to hold talks with publishers over payment for their content. The search giant signed a three-year deal worth $76 million with a number of French publishers earlier this year, but some smaller news outlets were not included in the deal. According to regulators, Google failed to hold talks with those other publishers “in good faith” to find an agreement on payment. This helps explain why Australia’s version of the same legislation imposes mandatory binding arbitration if a platform fails to hold negotiations with a publisher after a certain period of time.

The binding arbitration requirement was one of the aspects of the Australian code that Google and Facebook most objected to, not surprisingly. The clause states that if the companies don’t hold talks in good faith, they will be forced into arbitration with someone of the government’s choosing, who will then have the ability to name a price the platforms will have to pay. One of the amendments that got Facebook to drop its news ban gave the company an extended time period in which to reach deals with news publishers before the forced arbitration clause was triggered. But even more important was that the government agreed Facebook would only have to sign bulk deals with news publishers, not pay for every piece of news shared by anyone on its platform. And if it signs enough deals — the strategy that Google chose to follow from the beginning — then the suggestion is that the other aspects of the proposed legislation (which required things like 30 days notice of changes to the recommendation algorithm) will no longer apply.

Australia may feel that it emerged victorious from the battle with Facebook — after all, even after capitulating to Facebook’s brinksmanship, the country’s news publishers are now going to get cash payments from the social network and from Google, which was the goal of the proposed legislation. And that will no doubt embolden other countries to pursue similar campaigns. But many questions remain unanswered, including: even if we assume that Google and Facebook bear some responsibility for the decline of the media industry (which some believe is a stretch), if governments want to support journalism financially, why not impose a straightforward tax on the platforms, or on digital advertising, instead of using copyright as a back door? And if the bulk of the payments from the platforms go to established media outlets like those run by Rupert Murdoch — who controls a large proportion of the Australian press, and is widely seen as the impetus behind the legislation — what happens to smaller, independent news publishers?

Here’s more on the platforms and news:

  • Antitrust action: Margarethe Vestager, the European Union’s Competition Commissioner, warned on Tuesday that Google — or any of the other US technology giants — could face potential antitrust action if they threaten to pull out of European markets in retaliation for copyright laws similar to Australia’s. Vestager told the EU’s economy committee that there could be scope for “investigating if it’s actually legal for a dominant provider to stop supplying” services, adding that the EU “would have a number of tools to use.”
  • Unfit for purpose: A group of academics, journalists, and others who call themselves the Real Facebook Oversight Board say the press release about the Australian blockade from Nick Clegg, communications chief for Facebook and former British deputy prime minister, “shows that Facebook is unfit to police its platform.” The group says that the company “spectacularly overplayed its hand in Australia, revealing itself to an entire continent as a bully,” and that the company’s ban also shut down pages belonging to women’s shelters, non-profits, and charities. “And yet, we are expected to trust Facebook to police its platform for misinformation during a global pandemic.
  • Return to Spain: Google is negotiating individual licensing deals with Spanish publishers that could allow the search giant’s news service to return to the country, three sources close to the matter told Reuters. Google News blocked any Spanish media outlet from its news index in 2014, in response to new legislation that required it to pay for even small snippets of content. The law was one of the first to take that approach, which in turn led to similar rules being adopted by the EU and local versions in France and Germany. Spain is planning to adopt a new version of the legislation that would exclude Google and other companies from the law if they sign licensing deals with individual publishers.

Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times on Wednesday released the results from an eight-month-long internal investigation into its workplace culture, a report triggered in part by dissent within the Times over the organization’s behavior during Black Lives Matter protests. “For over a century and a half, The New York Times has succeeded in part by recognizing when it needed to change. This is such a moment,” said a note from publisher AG Sulzberger, chief executive Meredith Kopit Levien and executive editor Dean Baquet that introduces the report. The central finding of the investigation, they say, is that the Times “is too often a difficult place to work for people of all backgrounds — particularly colleagues of color.” The report lays out a plan of action to address these problems, including setting clear expectations for employee behavior; providing new training programs for managers; creating a new diversity, equity and inclusion office; and expanding the journalism fellowship program.
  • China has imposed new regulations on bloggers and social-media “influencers,” according to a report in Variety. The report says the country’s internet watchdog, the Cyberspace Administration of China, has “issued new regulations requiring bloggers, influencers and content creators on public social media accounts, known as ‘self-media,’ to possess a government-issued credential in order to publish anything on a host of topics.” Other social media categories such as trending charts, hot search lists, push notifications and short video platforms will also be impacted, the report says.
  • In an editorial, the Des Moines Register editorial board says the pending charges against a Register reporter who was arrested while covering a social justice protest last spring “are a clear infringement on the freedom of the press” and should not proceed. Andrea Sahouri is scheduled to stand trial starting March 8 on charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The paper says the charges represent “a violation of free press rights and a miscarriage of justice.” According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, charges related to the protests remain pending against 16 journalists around the country.
  • Filmmaker and Intercept co-founder Laura Poitras, who has claimed she was fired, told New York magazine that she thinks the reason for her termination was that “I’ve been speaking out” about the company’s “retaliatory culture” and the flaws in its reporting on Reality Winner. Intercept editor-in-chief Betsy Reed tells the magazine that Poitras’ claims are “baseless and frankly ridiculous.” The company says it didn’t fire the filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize winner, but instead chose not to renew her annual contract with the site because she had been “inactive” for more than two years.
  • Andrew McCormick writes for CJR about the journalists and the “looming superstorm of climate disinformation,” in an article adapted from “The Climate Beat,” the weekly newsletter of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative strengthening coverage of the climate story. McCormick writes: “The best approach, simple as it sounds, is to lead with the facts, not punditry, says Kristy Roschke, managing director of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Reporters should favor local sources and expertise over outsiders.”
  • The Washington Post led all news organizations in winning Polk Awards for reporting on the coronavirus, with four prizes announced on Wednesday. Infectious-disease reporter Helen Branswell, of Stat News, won the public service award for a yearlong chronicle of the coronavirus and its effects. One of the Post‘s prizes came in a new category: oral history, for Eli Saslow’s “Voices From the Pandemic,” a collection of personal accounts from a variety of people affected by COVID. The Post also won an award for justice reporting for “George Floyd’s America,” a six-part series that documented the life and experiences of a Black man who was killed in May by the Minneapolis police.
  • Former president Donald Trump appealed directly to Facebook’s Oversight Board to rejoin the platform, according to a report from Channel 4 News. The Facebook Oversight Board, a team of 20 experts from around the world, is reviewing the tech company’s decision to permanently suspend Trump’s account. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark and a member of the Oversight Board, told Channel 4 of Trump’s appeal, according to the channel’s communications director. “We can confirm that a user statement has been received in the case before the Oversight Board concerning President Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts,” a spokesman told Insider.
  • A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that among adults who say they want to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they can, about half say they have gotten at least a fair amount of information about the vaccine from cable news and network television news, compared to about a third of adults who say they will not get the vaccine. Adults who are hesitant about the vaccine or who say they definitely will not get it are more likely to say they have gotten information about the vaccine from social media than those who are more enthusiastic about getting the vaccine.

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