Media organisations - large and small - were caught by surprise by Facebook's unilateral decision to ban all news links in Australia.
Rejecting the federal government's push for tech giants to pay for news content, Facebook's decision will have huge effects in the long and short term.
The Courier spoke to one of Australia's leading experts in journalism, Dr Denis Muller, about the bigger picture - below, see a statement from Facebook.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? HAVE YOUR SAY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE ARTICLE
How will this affect regional communities?
"It will affect communities in two ways.
"Firstly, yes, it will mean access to local news will be more difficult, and that is a problem in the short term.
"There is a much bigger, longer-term problem that if the global tech giants aren't made to pay for their news - we've seen what can happen to regional news and regional newspapers, we've seen it before the pandemic and during the pandemic.
"In the end, no media is viable without an income stream.
"What the global tech giants do is basically eat the media's lunch in two ways - firstly by siphoning off the advertising which is the lifeblood of journalism, and secondly they take the journalism itself for nothing and republish it, which in turn is one of the reasons why they're able to attract advertisers.
"There has to be a circuit-breaker, or in the long run we won't have a regional media, and we'll have a very thinned-out metropolitan media too.
"Certainly it will make life more difficult in the short term but it will be a much bigger longer-term problem if the circuit isn't broken.
What sort of action do you think is required? Is the code appropriate?
"I think the code is the right way to go, I think this is the most important, far-reaching, and best piece of media policy we've seen in Australia since the introduction of television.
"If the global tech giants won't pay up voluntarily, and they've shown they won't except on their own terms - I accept ACM has entered an agreement with Google and that will probably be registered under the code, entered into by ACM and Google voluntarily, and that's fine - that would not have happened if the code legislation had first of all not been drafted and now passed by parliament
"It's not the same as being able to generate the sort of advertising revenue that regional papers were able to generate in the pre-digital age, but it will be an important something, I think for that reason it's very important.
"It's been shown today with Facebook that these huge monopolies will be prepared to use their monopolistic bullying power in any way they can in order to not just save themselves money here, but also to prevent this becoming a global precedent.
Broadly, Facebook has said they can't get rid of misinformation - does this action show they do have the ability to make these changes?
"Absolutely - they do, they have enormous economic power, enormous technological power, and clearly they're not shy about using it.
"At a different level, it's not only a question of economics, of market value - which is what this is - and monopolistic behaviour, you need to look at it, I think, at two other levels.
"At a political level, it's clearly an attempt by this huge overseas company to put pressure on the Australian government to overturn legislation which is clearly in the public interest and for the public good.
"If we don't have a vibrant media sector, then our democracy suffers.
"Here we have this huge corporation attempting to basically arouse public indignation in order to put public pressure on the federal government to reverse its policy.
"At its third level, you have an ethical problem.
"In 2014, Zuckerberg put out his great manifesto in which he basically says we exist to bring the world together and to promote free speech, all these nice words - what we're now seeing is that those fine words only matter insofar as they can be spoken without costing Facebook any money.
"As soon as something happens which is going to cost them some money, the idea of bringing everyone together or promoting free speech goes out the window.
"We're looking at a problem of hypocrisy.
Facebook has proved it's not great for sharing information, and it's still easy to make propaganda - does that fundamentally show there's a weakness in using Facebook for anything other than what it was first designed for, by using it as a platform to share news content?
"It was set up as a kind of social - we call it social media now - but it has become an extremely potent weapon for information wars.
"We've seen that certainly in the US election in 2016, we saw an attempt made in the French presidential election, we know it played into the Brexit referendum, so we have now seen how it has been adapted for use by all sorts of people to push often extreme hate speech, and disinformation.
"The other problem is that while Facebook have made considerable investment in trying to stop this, it's still a problem, and it represents just a fraction of the income they make.
"The expenditure they put into this represents a fraction of the income they make, so they simply have to do better, they have to try harder.
"At the moment there's no regulation at all, the internet's completely at large globally.
"In the United States, the big platforms like Facebook and Google have the protection of the law through Section 230 of the Federal Communications Act, which says they're not publishers.
"That might be the case in the United States, and the case in Canada because of some court rulings, but that's not the case in Victoria.
"Here in Victoria, in the Supreme Court in April last year, it was ruled that Google was in fact a publisher and was liable at law for defamation.
"That was the first time I saw a piece of judge-made law that attempted to hold these people to account.
"There is no accountability for how they use their power or what they put up, and that's a much bigger problem than the present matter we're trying to tackle.
What will happen when credible news organisations are banned from the platform? Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said there will be issues when organisations with professional journalists, fact-checking, and editorial standards are unable to post.
"The minister's quite right about that - if Facebook ban or shut out the professional mass media which has all the checks, then yes, it does open the field up for even more disinformation, misinformation, hate speech, all the other evils that it's become notorious for.
"It's absolutely another consequence of this monopolistic behaviour.
Does the incidental banning of non-news pages, like the Ballarat Football Netball League or WRISC, show the weakness of using the algorithm to make decisions?
"The algorithm's got many weaknesses in this area.
"It can't tell truth from falsehood, and that's a huge problem.
"Relying on algorithms has enormous weakness.
"Zuckerberg himself has been all over the shop on this - at one stage, he said yes, we rely entirely on algorithms to make editorial decisions and that takes the human factor and bias out of it.
"Then he was accused by conservatives in America that the algorithm was cutting out conservative voices, so he said alright, we'll put some human beings in.
"That didn't seem to solve his problems either, so he went back to the algorithm.
"It's just all over the place.
"The algorithm is clearly a very efficient tool, particularly for targeting messages to a particular audience, but it has enormous weaknesses.
What advice do you have for the average news consumer?
"I think people are pretty good at going to websites, I think for practical purposes, that's what they need to do.
"They can go to the Courier website, ABC.net.au, The Age's website, news.com.au, and in fact, lots of people do, we know the vast majority of people who get their news online get it through the websites established by the organisations.
"It's not as quick and easy, and not as sociable, if you like, socially-connected as through Facebook, but it doesn't mean you can't get the news.
"Another point, about principle, people have to get used to the idea of paying for the news.
"News is not free, it is expensive and is paid for either by taxpayer's money through the national broadcasters, or through advertising, like in newspapers like the Ballarat Courier.
"It's not free, get used to it guys - there's no such thing as a free lunch.
"If we don't get around that problem, we're going to be left with a hollowed-out media, and that's bad for our society."
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity
Statement from Facebook's William Easton, Managing Director, Facebook Australia & New Zealand
"The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.
"This discussion has focused on US technology companies and how they benefit from news content on their services. We understand many will ask why the platforms may respond differently. The answer is because our platforms have fundamentally different relationships with news. Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue.
"In fact, and as we have made clear to the Australian government for many months, the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favor of the publishers - which is the reverse of what the legislation would require the arbitrator to assume. Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million.
"For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal. News makes up less than 4% of the content people see in their News Feed. Journalism is important to a democratic society, which is why we build dedicated, free tools to support news organisations around the world in innovating their content for online audiences.
"Over the last three years we've worked with the Australian Government to find a solution that recognizes the realities of how our services work. We've long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations. Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn't take or ask for.
"We were prepared to launch Facebook News in Australia and significantly increase our investments with local publishers, however, we were only prepared to do this with the right rules in place. This legislation sets a precedent where the government decides who enters into these news content agreements, and ultimately, how much the party that already receives value from the free service gets paid. We will now prioritise investments to other countries, as part of our plans to invest in new licensing news programs and experiences.
"Unfortunately, this means people and news organisations in Australia are now restricted from posting news links and sharing or viewing Australian and international news content on Facebook. Globally, posting and sharing news links from Australian publishers is also restricted. To do this, we are using a combination of technologies to restrict news content and we will have processes to review any content that was inadvertently removed.
"For Australian publishers this means:
- They are restricted from sharing or posting any content on Facebook Pages
- Admins will still be able to access other features from their Facebook Page, including Page insights and Creator Studio
- We will continue to provide access to all other standard Facebook services, including data tools and CrowdTangle
"For international publishers this means:
- They can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts can't be viewed or shared by Australian audiences
"For our Australian community this means:
- They cannot view or share Australian or international news content on Facebook or content from Australian and international news Pages
"For our international community this means:
- They cannot view or share Australian news content on Facebook or content from Australian news Pages
"The changes affecting news content will not otherwise change Facebook's products and services in Australia. We want to assure the millions of Australians using Facebook to connect with friends and family, grow their businesses and join Groups to help support their local communities, that these services will not change.
"We recognise it's important to connect people to authoritative information and we will continue to promote dedicated information hubs like the COVID-19 Information Centre, that connects Australians with relevant health information. Our commitment to remove harmful misinformation and provide access to credible and timely information will not change. We remain committed to our third-party fact-checking program with Agence France-Presse and Australian Associated Press and will continue to invest to support their important work.
"We hope that in the future the Australian government will recognise the value we already provide and work with us to strengthen, rather than limit, our partnerships with publishers."
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