Future Tense

Why Facebook Is Going to War in Australia

Advertisements for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun-Herald, the Sunday Telegraph, and other Australia publications are seen on a building.
Media publications are advertised outside a newsagency shop in Sydney on Sept. 14, 2017. AFP Contributor/Getty Images

Imagine: I see in the Sydney Morning Herald that someone who later tested positive for COVID-19 visited a train station near me. Health authorities are warning anyone who was there at certain times to be vigilant for symptoms and get tested. A lot of my friends live in the area, so I go to Facebook to share the article—but I can’t hit “post.” That’s because the content I want to share is news, and Facebook doesn’t do that anymore.

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This scenario could become a reality if Facebook comes good on the threat it issued this week to ban news content from its platform in Australia. It’s the latest volley in a process that has been going on for more than two years, as Australia’s FCC equivalent, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has worked toward a “media bargaining code” to regulate relations between Facebook and Google and news organizations. The government seems determined to pass the code in coming months—hence Facebook’s new threat.

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If that happens, Facebook Australia’s managing director, Will Easton, said in a statement this week, Facebook will “reluctantly” stop Australian publishers and people from sharing even international news on Facebook and Instagram. In Easton’s characterization, the company is up against the wall: Switching off news is not Facebook’s first choice, but its last, he said. Facebook has described the Australian proposal as “unprecedented in its reach.”

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The code would initially apply only to Facebook and Google, which has lodged its own campaign against the proposal by issuing an open letter describing it as “unfair” and creating pop-up ads on its products warning Australians about it. The Facebook threat has something of a Google precedent: In 2014, the search engine pulled its Google News product from Spain to avoid being forced to pay news publishers for stories. France’s regulator is currently pressuring Google to negotiate to pay publishers, and other European countries may follow suit, but Facebook has so far got off more lightly there.

Under a draft version of the code published in July, Facebook would have to tell news publishers what data it collects on the publishers’ users (without handing over the data itself), notify publishers of significant algorithmic changes that would affect the ranking of news content, and give news publishers power to disable comments on their posts sharing news content, or block comments by certain users or in particular circumstances. Facebook would also have to consult with news organizations to develop a proposal to recognize original work—as opposed to aggregation—when ranking news content, rewarding publishers doing the reporting grunt work.

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Most notably, the code requires the social network and news publishers to bargain over payments to be made by Facebook to for the publishers’ content. If the parties don’t agree, it goes to final offer arbitration—both sides submit a final offer, and an independent panel of arbitrators chooses between them. If Facebook doesn’t comply, it faces massive fines.

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Facebook’s response is an overreaction to a code that doesn’t actually demand a lot. It doesn’t prescribe an amount that Facebook will have to shell out—it just requires it to come to the table and negotiate in good faith. The nub of Facebook’s argument is that news content is not a significant part of its business and doesn’t create much profit for the company, while publishers benefit from the huge audiences that Facebook allows them to reach. If that’s so, Facebook can bring that data to the bargaining table and make its case. The ACCC is attempting to redress an imbalance in bargaining power, not prescribe the outcome of the bargain.

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Facebook’s dramatic escalation makes more sense if the debate over the Australian code is a proxy war in a bigger global fight over how Facebook should be regulated. Facebook made clear that its message was meant for American ears when it gave its only interview about the threatened blockade to NBC News, declining all media requests in Australia. Globally, Facebook has avoided strong regulatory intrusion on its relationship with news publishers till now, partly by proactively striking deals with them to allay concerns about its market power, like the news tab it launched in the U.S. in 2019. But Facebook’s red line is now clear: Come for us like Australia is trying to do, and we’ll fight you.

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That the code is not the main game here is of little comfort to Australians, who will bear the brunt of this escalation if Facebook does indeed ban news here. And there is every reason to think that it will. Australian officials have doubled down on the code in the wake of Facebook’s statement. For Facebook’s strong stance against the Australian proposal to resonate globally, it will need to follow through on its threat.

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It’s strange to imagine what Facebook would look like if it banned news. On Nov. 3, Australians could log on to Facebook and not see a single news story about the Trump-Biden election. That’s not to say they wouldn’t be able to figure out the result (whenever the U.S. has one) from the content they see—individuals will still be able to post about the news without links, after all—but it won’t be the important facts researched, contextualized, and vetted by professional newsgathering outfits. Instead, it will be opinion and invective, memes, even misinformation and conspiracy. When Facebook is the primary lens through which many people access the internet, the impact on Australia’s information ecosystem starts to look pretty scary.

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In essence, Facebook has pledged to deliberately cut its own users off from information. A fundamental limb of Facebook’s opposition to the code is that it directs millions of Australians to news sites, thus delivering those sites a benefit. It’s a legitimate argument against forcing Facebook to pay those publishers—but it’s also a fact that would make it unconscionable for Facebook to stop allowing that content on its platform. According to Facebook’s own data, people clicked to Australian news articles 2.3 billion times from Facebook news feeds in the first five months of 2020. A 2020 University of Canberra study found that 39 percent of Australians use Facebook as a source for news, a number that rises among younger generations. During the pandemic, 49 percent have used it as a source of news about the coronavirus. For more than half of Gen Z, social media has been their main source of news during the pandemic.

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If Facebook bans news content, many of those people simply won’t know the facts and information they would otherwise have learned. And this is a time when the news is not just about telling people what happened today, or even the important incremental process of informing people’s votes at election time, but literally helping people to avoid getting sick and dying in a pandemic. If they don’t see it on Facebook, many of my friends who travel through my possibly COVID-infected train station simply won’t know they were put at risk.

To protect its own business interests, Facebook has threatened a world where Australians will be able to share and read almost anything on Facebook—just not the stuff that would create an informed population. And if the U.S. dares follow suit, American users should prepare for a similar future.

Update, Sept. 5, 2020: This article was updated to include the global context for this dispute.

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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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