Facebook’s Drastic Step to Disallow News Posts in Australia “Alarming”
Move comes in response to draft law that PEN America says is flawed, but that response has troubling implications for free expression and journalism
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(New York, NY) — This week, Facebook abruptly began blocking users from posting or sharing news stories to its platforms in Australia and blocked the pages of Australian news organizations, citing pending legislation that would require digital platforms to compensate media companies when articles are shared. The literary and free expression group PEN America today said that while the proposed law is flawed, Facebook’s response to it is alarming and has troubling implications for journalism, free expression, and democracy.
“Facebook’s abrupt and sloppily executed decision to remove news and the ability to share it for Australian users and organizations not only laid bare the sheer unilateral power of one company to control what information we access and communicate, but was deeply and irresponsibly dangerous in and of itself,” said Matt Bailey, digital freedom director at PEN America. “At a moment when the world is seized with the urgency of countering disinformation and its attendant dangers, Facebook has just given it free rein in Australia, and taken away the most important tool we have for countering it—the news produced by professional journalists.”
On February 17, the News Media Bargaining Code was approved by Australia’s lower legislative chamber. Among other provisions, the code would require large media and internet companies to pay media outlets when their articles are shared or linked online. The law would apply to a list of internet companies to be determined on an ongoing basis by the government (initially, just Facebook and Google) and to media companies with more than AUS$150,000 of annual revenue, or about $118,000 USD. Google has reached an agreement with News Corp., the parent of Fox News, and is in negotiations with other outlets. On Thursday, Facebook announced its intention to remove news content and the ability of users to post it and abruptly did so.
“Back-room negotiations between corporate giants should not be mistaken for meaningful regulatory reform, and whether Facebook comes back to the table or not, the losers are journalists and small publishers in Australia and around the world,” said PEN America’s Bailey. “When access to credible news is a bargaining chip, we all lose. The current outcome is essentially the worst of all worlds: It is undemocratic, risks worsening not only the availability but the diversity of news sources, and poses an immediate threat to public safety and free expression in Australia. We urge Facebook to restore access to news for Australian users, and seek other solutions to this impasse. And we urge the Australian government to revisit its regulatory approach.”
As PEN America documented in the report Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions, the digital advertising duopoly enjoyed by Google and Facebook has resulted in catastrophic declines in revenue for news media, in particular since Facebook adjusted its feed algorithm to prioritize posts from friends and family rather than news in 2010. As PEN America reported, the smallest players are hit hardest, with approximately 77 percent of digital ad revenue going to Facebook and Google.