In this week’s news media and social media showdown in Australia, I think I’m on Rupert Murdoch’s side for once. Unless I’m at Mark Zuckerberg’s.
It is a horrible choice. Do I support the mindless media titan that controls News Corp and its long-standing efforts to wrest power from the tech giants that have slashed the journalism economy?
Or do I support the king of Facebook and the Internet’s fundamental tenet that hyperlink sharing should be free and open, even though Mr. Zuckerberg’s creation has become the primary distributor of lies and speeches by hate, threatening to overwhelm us all?
A clash became inevitable as the Australian government moved closer to passing a bill establishing a ‘news media bargaining code’, which would require tech companies to pay for news that appears. on their platforms. The legislation is expected to be passed within the next two weeks.
Tech reporter Casey Newton wrote, correctly, on his Platformer newsletter that the proposal is a “shakedown” and very supportive of publishers like Mr. Murdoch. Unless individual agreements are reached, digital platforms and news outlets will have to enter into a binding arbitration process in favor of journalists.
Google has weathered the storm by signing deals with Australia’s three biggest publishers, including one with News Corp which also involved other countries, to pay for content from those media companies to appear in its News Showcase product.
Google wanted to prevent its highly lucrative search business from being hampered by the new news payments system, a scenario that would have cost Google and also hurt media companies given the benefits they derive from their discovery by line. It was a smart move for Google, which had already committed $ 1 billion to close such deals.
But Facebook has a different business model. Links to journalism make up only a tiny fraction of Facebook posts, making them unimportant to its bottom line. Facebook has paid some news publishers to appear in its News tab, but the Australian requirement appears to be a bridge too far.
So, Facebook made an incredible effort to walk away from the negotiating table and told Australians to get screwed, as locals might say. He decided to remove all news links from the platform.
“The bill fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and the publishers who use it to share news content,” said William Easton, Facebook managing director for Australia and New Zealand. He added that in the past year he sent Australian media five billion clicks, earning them some $ 316 million.
“This left us with a difficult choice: to try to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or to stop allowing news content on our services in Australia,” he added. “We choose the latter.”
This means that no Australian news agency will be linked on Facebook.
As Mr. Newton, the tech reporter, noted, “given how long it has been possible to restrict linking, one would think Facebook would have been better prepared for its arrival.”
You would think – but no. The idea of Facebook blocking information on its site in Australia quickly sparked strong complaints of censorship and unfettered monopoly power.
It is not such a thing. If Facebook doesn’t want to pay for news links and the links aren’t essential to their business, they shouldn’t have to.
I made a similar point a few weeks ago, when Amazon decided to stop allowing the Talking social media network to use its cloud services after the Jan.6 attack on the Capitol. Parler and others have called it a crime, but no company has to make an economic deal it doesn’t want to do. No media company has the right to operate on a particular platform.
But Facebook’s decision in Australia was also awkward. It sounded vaguely creepy and played into the hands of those who want to get the business under control for more legitimate reasons, including its botched handling of disinformation and quashing of innovators.
It was open season on Facebook before, and now it’s going to get worse, especially as many other jurisdictions, like Canada and the European Union, are considering rules similar to Australia’s.
With that perspective, you’d think Facebook would be more careful, given Mr. Murdoch’s persistence of villainy in attacking tech, in portraying Silicon Valley as a group of information thieves who pose a danger to the society.
It’s ironic, of course, given that News Corp has launched more toxic media out into the world than it seems possible for a single company. And now, Facebook has just given an unscrupulous man who has a major influence on politics in Australia – and the United States – a powerful public relations weapon.
I’m not sorry for Mr. Zuckerberg. And it’s likely that Facebook will resist the bad press and return to the negotiating table.
But Mr. Zuckerberg should pay close attention to the level of anger his company receives after making a legitimate decision. It’s a nasty glimpse into the kind of stigma Facebook will continue to face when it comes under scrutiny for the things it actually does wrong. That is, nobody really likes or trusts Facebook or its leaders, especially Mr. Zuckerberg. While this can be unfair at times, not being nice will continue to come at a high price.
Perhaps even more problematic is the nature of the Australian proposal. Creating a protective racket for legacy media companies does nothing innovative to help journalism’s weakened financial ecosystem, brought about in part by the rise of internet giants. While no one likes the idea of painting the fences of Google or Facebook without a paycheck, Australia’s proposal does not help create sustainable business models for journalism.
Which is another rock for the media and a much more difficult place to live.