13:55 GMT28 February 2021
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    Facebook banned Australian news outlets on Thursday from sharing content on its platform in a retaliatory move after failing to sway Canberra’s stance regarding its "News Media Bargaining Code" legislation, tailored to address "bargaining power imbalances" between local news media businesses and digital platforms like Facebook and Google.

    Facebook’s ongoing standoff with the Australian government over the proposed news media code – a disputed piece of legislation that would force the social media behemoth and Google to pay news outlets for content posted on their online platforms – has taken a dramatic turn.

    Australian news outlets were banned on Thursday from sharing content on Facebook, with the botched move also ricocheting to block charities, government agencies, fire and emergency services, COVID-19 pandemic response, and a plethora of smaller businesses.

    While international news organisations were still posting on Facebook, the nation’s users couldn't view or share the content. The legislation that prompted Facebook to go ballistic passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday evening and will soon be debated by the Senate.

    Any amendments, which could potentially be introduced to it by the government, would hinge on the outcome of negotiations with Facebook. Amid back-and-forth haggling to resolve the issue, speculations are rife as to what the developments might mean for users.

    Victims of the Facebook Ban

    As Facebook made good on its earlier threats, the Thursday ban left users based in Australia currently unable to see or share posts by either local or international news sites, with a pop-up window saying that "no posts" are available.

    A few government pages might also still be blocked if the social media giant hasn’t succeeded in unblocking them yet.

    Anyone based outside of Australia will not be able to post links to Australian news sites. Meanwhile, Australian news organisations cannot post content to their Facebook pages.

    A number of non-news site pages, like like of state health departments, the West Australian fire and emergency services page, Bureau of Meteorology, several charities, and union pages also found themselves caught in the Facebook ban crossfire, with some of the collateral damage restored by midday.

    Why is Facebook Up in Arms?

    The Australian government last April instructed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to develop a mandatory code of conduct. The legislation was tailored to address "bargaining power imbalances" between local news media businesses and digital platforms – specifically, Google and Facebook – which benefit from the content that the outlets create.

    The suggested legislation would require the tech giants to negotiate payments to media outlets for using their content.

    Accordingly, the legislation would require Facebook to pay publishers if “news content” was posted on its website. Circumstances in which the social media platform allows news content from some publishers – not part of the code – while blocking others, could lead to face penalties.

    As the spill-out from the botched news ban affected health departments, charities, etc, with not just Australian publishers but all international news sites blocked in Australia, Facebook claimed it argued its case against the mulled code.

    As it inadvertently over-blocked pages in implementing the ban, Facebook insisted it was simply attempting to meet the "definition of news."

    “As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” a spokeswoman was cited as saying by The Guardian.

    Facebook claims it offers more advantages to news companies than news companies offer in return.

    News content accounts for less than 4 percent of content people see in their news feeds, while Facebook accounted for 5.1bn clicks on Australian news websites in 2020, according to a blog post by the company’s head in Australia and New Zealand, Will Easton, cited by the outlet .

    Inherent Dangers of the Move

    The Facebook ban might affect Australians’ access to vital information related to emergencies and the COVID pandemic, undermining concerted efforts to tackle challenges.

    In this April 11, 2018 file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington
    © AP Photo / Andrew Harnik
    In this April 11, 2018 file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington

    Furthermore, in the wake of the social media giant’s move, Nine Entertainment, an Australian publicly-listed media company, warned that combatting misinformation – easily spread on the platform – might become even more challenging in light of an absence of news from Facebook.

    Those wanting to correct misinformation posted by relatives or friends would not be able to reply with a link to a news article, said experts. In a bid to allay concerns, Facebook was cited as confirming its fact-checking partnership with news agencies AAP and AFP would continue.

    Haggling Over Code

    Australia’s Federal Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was earlier quoted by 7News as indicating he had constructive discussions about the legislation with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. However, he added that the government had no intention on backpedaling on the code, while certain potential changes might be considered.

    “[Zuckerberg] did explain to me that they had concerns with aspects of the code, and it goes to the interpretation of some of its elements,” Frydenberg said, adding:

    “He will come back to me with some more considered views. We’ll listen to him and discuss that with the prime minister and with our colleagues. And we’ll make decisions then. But we are committed to the code.”

     

    Google had similarly threatened to pull its search engine from Australia, but back-pedalled, after reportedly securing deals with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and Nine Entertainment.

     

    Related:

    Facebook Bars Sharing, Viewing of News in Australia as Mooted Media Law Clears Lower House
    Canadian Minister Supports Australia's Plan to Make Google, Facebook Pay for News Content
    Canberra Says Facebook Was ‘Wrong,’ ‘Heavy-Handed’ to Block News Access in Australia
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