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Facebook threatens to block news-sharing in Australia


Logo of Facebook displayed on a smartphone screen and keyboard are seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on August 11, 2020. (Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Enlarge / Logo of Facebook displayed on a smartphone screen and keyboard are seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on August 11, 2020. (Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Facebook has threatened to block users and publishers in Australia from sharing news on its platform if the country presses ahead with a landmark proposal to force big tech to pay media groups for carrying their content.

The US social media platform said it would “reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram” if the draft legislation comes into force.

“This is not our first choice—it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector,” Facebook said in a statement.

Canberra signaled it would not back down. “Australia makes laws that advance our national interest. We don’t respond to coercion or heavy handed threats wherever they come from,” said Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer.

Internet platforms have long faced criticism for shaking up the traditional news industry, with Facebook and Google now receiving the majority of online advertising spending.

Meanwhile, global regulators are circling big tech over antitrust concerns and their potential to affect elections, with other governments including in Spain and France having already taken action similar to the Australian proposals.

Canberra’s draft legislation, which could pass parliament by December, is aimed at forcing Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for content. It seeks to redress the “fundamental imbalance in bargaining power between digital platforms and news providers” by establishing a compulsory system of arbitration over payments.

The code contains a tough nondiscrimination clause intended to prevent Facebook and Google discriminating against Australian news providers, with breaches liable for fines of up to 10 percent of the company’s Australian turnover.

Rod Sims, chief executive of Australia’s competition regulator, told the Financial Times that Facebook and Google would have to remove all international news from their platforms, not just Australian news, or they could face fines.

That would have a major impact on their services, he added. “First of all, you have to think what would Google Search be if it had no news at all?” said Mr Sims. “I think Google Search would be much diminished.”

Blocking access to all news on their platforms in Australia would be complex and fraught with legal risk for the two groups.

“That means we’d have to undertake a mass cull of content globally to stop them being visible to Australians—we’d have to remove all foreign newspapers, bloggers, YouTube citizen reporters, but also sports reporting, discussions of global health issues, tweets about current events, and literally endless other types of content from all sources around the world,” said Google in a blog post last week.

Australia “presumes that Facebook benefits most in its relationship with publishers, when in fact the reverse is true,” the social media company said late on Monday in the US. It said news was a negligible source of revenue and accounted for only “a fraction” of what users see on its platform, while it has helped media groups garner billions of clicks.

Facebook did not spell out how it would stop news content from being shared on its platform in Australia, saying it would “provide specific details soon” on how it plans to do that.

Jason Kint, chief executive officer of Digital Content Next, a trade association for online publishers, said Facebook’s statement “negated the value of current and trusted news to a mostly user-generated content” platform.

He added Facebook appeared “prepared to draw a red line and put on battle gear in Australia in the hopes other nations don’t follow suit.”

© 2020 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.



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