CANBERRA, Australia: In a shocking act of retaliation on Feb 18, Facebook blocked Australians from sharing news, a milestone in the increasingly frantic jockeying between governments, media and powerful tech companies.
Australia's government condemned the decision, which also blocked some government communications, including messages about emergency services, and some commercial pages. The digital platforms fear that what's happening in Australia will become an expensive precedent for other countries.
Facebook took the drastic action after the House of Representatives passed legislation that would make Facebook and Google pay for Australian journalism, said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. He said he was given no warning before Facebook acted. The legislation must be passed by the Senate to become law.
"Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Frydenberg said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison later lashed out on his own Facebook page, using Facebook jargon.
"Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Morrison posted.
"These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them. They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it,” he added. "We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament.”
Facebook said the proposed Australian law "fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it”.
"This is an assault on a sovereign nation,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told Parliament. "It is an assault on people’s freedom and, in particular, it’s an utter abuse of big technologies’ market power and control over technology.”
Both Google and Facebook have threatened retaliation if Australia enacts the law, which the government contends will ensure media businesses receive fair payment for their journalism being linked on those platforms.
Australia's proposal requires a negotiation safety net through an arbitration panel. The digital giants would not be able to abuse their dominant negotiating positions by making take-it-or-leave-it payment offers to news businesses for their journalism. In case of a standoff, the panel would make a binding decision on a winning offer.
Facebook had threatened to block access to Australian news rather than pay for it under the proposed News Media Bargaining Code. Google had threatened to remove its search functions from Australia because it said the proposed law was unworkable.
But Google’s threat has faded as it quickly stitches up licensing content deals with Australian media companies under its own News Showcase model.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp announced a wide-ranging deal with Google on Wednesday. Major Australian media organisation Seven West Media reached a deal earlier in the week. Their rival Nine Entertainment is reportedly close to its own pact, and state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp is in negotiations.
The government accused Facebook of endangering public safety by temporarily blocking state emergency services messaging on a day when there were severe fire and flood warnings in various parts of Australia.
The Bureau of Meteorology’s weather warnings, a Hobart women’s shelter and the Betoota Advocate, a satirical website named after an Australian ghost town, were among those surprised to find their content blocked at least temporarily.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said he told Facebook the government expects access to its pages to be restored.
"The fact that there are organisations like state health departments, fire and emergency services... who have had their Facebook pages blocked, that’s a public safety issue,” Fletcher said.
Facebook said in a statement: "Any pages that are inadvertently impacted, we’ll look to reverse.”
Health Minster Greg Hunt said the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne still didn't have its feed fixed after more than eight hours.
Frydenberg said he had "constructive” discussions with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg after the content blocking began.
"He did explain to me that they had concerns with aspects of the code, and it goes to the interpretation of some of its elements. And he will come back to me with some more considered views,” Frydenberg said.
He said the government remains committed to the code that is yielding generous payment deals with Google for Australian media.
"Other countries are watching, but also Google and Facebook and other digital giants are very focused on what it means, as far as a precedent goes, for other countries,” Frydenberg said.
News Corp said it would receive "significant payments” from Google under the three-year agreement, which includes heavyweight news organisations throughout the English-speaking world such as The Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the US, the Times and the Sun in the UK, and The Australian and Sky News in Australia. The deal spans audio and video and News Corp also will get an ad revenue share from Google.
Frydenberg said after weekend talks with Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, that he was convinced the platforms "do want to enter into these commercial arrangements”.
"It’s a massive step forward we have seen this week,” Frydenberg said of the Google deals.
"But if this was easy, every other country in the world would have done it already. But they haven’t,” he said. – AP