Facebook under fire over move to ‘bully democracy’ in Australia

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Facebook under fire over move to ‘bully democracy’ in Australia

Politicians, news providers and civil society groups in the UK and US have rounded on Facebook and said the company’s decision to block all media cont

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Politicians, news providers and civil society groups in the UK and US have rounded on Facebook and said the company’s decision to block all media content on its platform in Australia should hasten moves to bring its powers under control.

In a step condemned as “an attempt to bully a democracy” and “threatening to bring an entire country to its knees”, Facebook stopped its 18 million Australian users from viewing or sharing news stories overnight in an escalating row over whether it should have to pay media companies for its content. It said the new rules “ignore the realities” of its relationship with news publishers.

While Google has struck preemptive deals with several outlets ahead of the introduction of Australia’s news media code, Facebook’s defiance of legislators prompted fierce attacks in Australia and on both sides of the Atlantic.

After Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, called the company’s actions “as arrogant as they were disappointing”, Julian Knight, the chair of the British parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport committee, said: “This action – this bullyboy action – that they’ve undertaken in Australia will I think ignite a desire to go further among legislators around the world.”

Knight said that the battle was now “a real test case” for how tech giants should be regulated and asked to pay for content.

His view was echoed in the US, where David Cicilline, who chairs the influential House antitrust committee, suggested that the move was “not compatible with democracy”.

“Threatening to bring an entire country to its knees to agree to Facebook’s terms is the ultimate admission of monopoly power,” the Democrat said on Twitter, posting a link to an article on Facebook’s decision.

Facebook’s adoption of a hard line in the dispute came days before a vote on the code in Australia’s upper house that is expected to pass. The new rules require it and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price.

Australia’s government says the code is aimed at “levelling the playing field” between the tech firms and struggling publishers, which have lost substantial advertising revenue to the US giants over the last decade.

The legislation is widely seen as a test case for global regulators considering a push to extract more revenue from internet giants for content providers.

But while Facebook’s action will be seen as an attempt to avoid accepting a precedent which could harm its business all over the world, the unintended consequences of its move immediately complicated its case against Morrison’s government.

As well as conventional news outlets, government pages – including on bushfires, mental health, emergency services and even meteorology – were also blocked, as were community, women’s health and domestic violence support pages.

Facebook said it would quickly reverse those blocks, and blamed the Australian government’s definition of news content in the media bargaining code for the “inadvertent” step – an interpretation the government rejects.

There were also concerns that the decision would make it far harder to challenge misinformation propagated by Facebook users quoting unreliable sources. Facebook said that its commitment on the subject “has not changed” and that it will continue to direct people to authoritative information and review misleading content.

Morrison wrote on Facebook: “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing. They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”

In the UK, the government said that it was “vital” that the public be able to access accurate news and information, particularly during a global pandemic. A statement added: “We encourage Facebook and the Australian government to work together to find a solution.”

Canada’s heritage minister Steven Guilbeault said Facebook’s move was “highly irresponsible.”

Guilbeault said that “it won’t deter us from moving ahead” with similar legislation there.

Dietmar Wolff, head of the BDZV news publishers’ association in Germany, said: “It is high time that governments all over the world limit the market power of the gatekeeper platforms.”

Civil society leaders and media groups also condemned Facebook. Tim O’Connor from Amnesty International Australia said it was “extremely concerning” that a private company was willing to control access to information on which people rely. “Facebook’s action starkly demonstrates why allowing one company to exert such dominant power over our information ecosystem threatens human rights,” O’Connor said.

Elaine Pearson, the Australia director at Human Rights Watch Australia, said it was a “dangerous turn of events. Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”

But Bernard Keane, the political editor of the Crikey website, defended Facebook and said the move was “the result of a staggering miscalculation by a government that thought it could run an extortion racket at the behest of the Murdochs on the widely reviled big tech companies”.

In the UK, Guardian Media Group, which owns the Guardian and the Observer, said Facebook’s action cleared the way for the spread of misinformation at a time when facts and clarity are sorely needed.

“We believe that public interest journalism should be as widely available as possible in order to have a healthy functioning democracy,” a spokesman said. “We have consistently argued that governments must play a role when it comes to establishing fair and transparent regulation of online platforms.”

MailOnline said it was “astonished by this inflammatory move”. And Henry Faure Walker, the chair of the News Media Association, said Facebook’s ban during a pandemic was “a classic example of a monopoly power being the schoolyard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves”.

Facebook’s position in the UK ecosystem is quite different, with Facebook News launching last month, involving commercial deals with a number of major publishers. That move has been seen as a strategic play aimed at suggesting that others should not follow Australia’s lead.

EU countries do not face the same situation as Australia because of new copyright rules that protect publishers in Europe, the bloc’s executive has said.

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