Facebook to reverse ban on Australian news sites

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook.

By PETER HACKNEY

Facebook will restore news content on the social media app for Australians this week after reaching a deal with the federal government over its world-first media bargaining code regulating global tech giants.

The social media platform was widely condemned after its surprise move last Thursday to block all Australians from viewing and sharing news articles on the platform.

The ban not only applied to the Facebook pages of large mainstream media outlets – such as titles published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia – but also small, independent publishers which rely heavily on social media for traffic, including the Sydney Sentinel.

Early on Thursday morning, all posts disappeared from the Sentinel’s Facebook page, the ability to post or share new content was disabled, and even the publication’s cover photo was replaced by a grey void, mirroring content purges on the Facebook pages of media outlets across the nation.

The Sentinel’s Facebook page, purged of content during Facebook’s Australian media ban. Photo: The Sydney Sentinel/Facebook.

In a move that only increased public outrage at Facebook’s actions, the Facebook accounts of numerous charities, health organisations, government departments and NGOs were also affected by the arbitrary ban.

But in a statement this afternoon, Facebook said it would restore Australian news pages “in the coming days” after reaching a deal with the government, involving several amendments to the government’s Media Bargaining code.

Facebook’s statement

“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to reach an agreement with the Australian government and appreciate the constructive discussions we’ve had,” said William Easton, Managing Director, Facebook Australia and New Zealand, in a statement released by the company this afternoon.

“We have consistently supported a framework that would encourage innovation and collaboration between online platforms and publishers,” he said.

“After further discussions, we are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognise the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them. “

The amendments

The amendments to the government’s legislation include a stipulation that final offer arbitration — something Facebook was strongly opposed to — be considered as “a last resort” where commercial deals cannot be reached between Facebook and publishers.

A two-month mediation period will be inserted into the code to give the parties more time to broker agreements before they are forced into arbitration. 

The amendments also require the government to consider whether social media giants such as Facebook have struck commercial agreements with news publishers before passing further regulation to make the code apply to them. This means Facebook and other platforms could potentially sidestep the code if they can satisfy the government they have struck appropriate deals outside it.

The government’s statement

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher issued a joint statement this afternoon, talking up the prospect of Facebook paying news outlets for featuring their content on the platform.

“These amendments will provide further clarity to digital platforms and news media businesses about the way the code is intended to operate and strengthen the framework for ensuring news media businesses are fairly remunerated,” they said. 

Later, at a media doorstop in Canberra, Frydenberg said Facebook had “re-friended Australia”, thanking Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg “for the constructive nature of the discussions we have had over the course of recent days”.

“There is no doubt that Australia has been a proxy battle for the world,” he said.

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Photo: Josh Frydenberg/Facebook.

Good news for independent media?

Significantly, for smaller media players such as the Sentinel, Facebook has indicated they will be included in negotiations to pay news publishers. 

“We have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers,” said Campbell Brown, Vice President of Global News Partnerships at Facebook.

Smaller, local publishers without the backing of multimillion-dollar budgets, and in-house apps, tend to rely more heavily on social media to promote their content, with Facebook being the dominant market player. 

According to content marketing services firm Civic Web Media, Facebook was the largest social media platform in Australia as of December 2020, with 16.5 million users across the nation. 

By contrast, Instagram was reported to have 9 million Australian users, while Twitter sat at 5.8 million. 

What now?

Facebook will now restart stalled negotiations over payment for news content. The platform has committed to entering into “good faith” negotiations with publishers seeking to reach agreements.

How this will play out for small, local publishers remains unclear.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the amendments were signed off by the Coalition party room this morning, paving the way for the legislation’s passage through Parliament as soon as tomorrow.

Facebook now faces the prospect of similar negotiations overseas, with the UK, the European Union, Canada and other jurisdictions indicating interest in similar legislation. 

The British government was “obviously concerned” at the way Facebook had stripped news content from the platform in Australia, reported The Guardian, which said British culture secretary Oliver Dowden would meet with representatives of the US tech giant this week.

Peter Hackney is the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Sentinel.