“Schoolyard Bullies” – Facebook Pulls the Plug on Australian News Content

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, millions of Australians woke up to the following message displayed on their Facebook profiles.

“In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links to all posts from News pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted.”

Overnight Facebook, which has over 18 million active users in Australia, prevented the sharing of news and wiped clean the pages of media companies, including the public broadcaster’s television, radio, and non-news pages. Citizen information and government pages such as those including information on bushfires, mental health, emergency services and even meteorology were also blocked in addition to support pages for community, women’s health and domestic violence as the tech giant flexed its muscles in its ongoing battle with the Australian government.

The source of this overnight purge is Facebook and Google’s ongoing battle with the Australian government and its proposed news media code that would require the tech giants to pay for third party news content featured on their websites. The legislation is aimed at “leveling the playing field” as the traditional news media industry continues to suffer revenue losses in the digital era of news content publishing.

Google has already extended an olive branch by agreeing deals with major Australian media groups such as the Murdoch owned Media Corp which will lead to the search engine paying for media content produced by journalists working for these companies.

Facebook’s obstinacy has been described as “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” by Henry Faure Walker, the chair of the News Media Association.

Australian Prime Minister Scott spoke on the issue on Wednesday morning describing the actions of Facebook as “confirming the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of big tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them”.

This arbitrary and clumsy act of petulance by Facebook, raises the question “What next?” The escalating situation has shown how vulnerable countries are to the whims of powerful tech companies whose increased monopolisation of information and communication streams places elected governments in an unenviable position.

Push back, as the Australian government has, and you run the risk of exposing large proportions of the population to unverified and misinformed news stories. Facebook’s pull on the news plug comes in the week the Australian Covid-19 vaccine rollout is scheduled to start. Do nothing, and watch traditional journalism be wiped out as it struggles to compete financially with the continually increasing migration from print to digital news.

The situation in Australia is yet another reminder that Google and Facebook are not primarily motivated by supporting journalism, but rather by ensuring they have complete control over their lucrative revenue streams. The world sat back and welcomed the social media revolution of the late 2000’s but as the likes of Facebook enters its teenager years, it is increasingly demonstrating the petulance and stubbornness one might expect from a teenager being told what they can and can’t do.

All eyes will be on Australia as they continue to forge a path on how to take back control from an angsty tech company and while Facebook’s actions have shown that more regulation is perhaps needed when it comes to social media, it should also be a reminder that perhaps we need to forge a separate path away from our dependency on the tech duopoly rather than simply increasing the regulation.

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