February 19, 2021
File photo shows the logo for social media giant Facebook at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York’s Times Square. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File). (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
By Twinkle Ghosh and Joe McDonald | Global News and The Associated Press
Facebook has blocked users in Australia from viewing or sharing news on the social media platform.
The move was triggered by Australia joining France and other governments in pushing Google, Facebook and other internet giants to pay publishers for news content.
While Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., announced agreements to pay publishers in Australia, Facebook announced Thursday that it was blocking users in Australia from viewing or spreading news on its platform.
This comes on the heels of Ottawa planning to introduce similar legislation this year and could spell a similar fate for Canadian users.
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has made it clear that he intends to introduce a “made-in Canada” plan by summer that includes payment for news content.
“News is not free and has never been,” he said earlier this month.
“Our position is clear: publishers must be adequately compensated for their work and we will support them as they deliver essential information for the benefit of our democracy and the health and well-being of our communities.”
While the tech giants have played a positive role in making news accessible, Guilbeault said, “we must address the market imbalance between news media organizations and those who benefit from their work.”
The minister further assured reporters Thursday that Canada will make Facebook Inc pay for news content.
“Canada is at the forefront of this battle … we are really among the first group of countries around the world that are doing this,” he told reporters.
How does this affect Canada?
Last year, Canadian media organizations warned of a potential market failure without government action. They said the Australian approach would permit publishers to recover C$620 million a year. Without action, they warned, Canada would lose 700 print journalism jobs out of 3,100 total.
Guilbeault said Canada could adopt the Australian model, which requires Facebook and Google to reach deals to pay news outlets whose links drive activity on their services, or agree on a price through binding arbitration.
Another option is to follow the example of France, which requires large tech platforms to open talks with publishers seeking remuneration for use of news content.
“We are working to see which model would be the most appropriate,” he said, adding he spoke last week to his French, Australian, German and Finnish counterparts about working together on ensuring fair compensation for web content.
“I suspect that soon we will have five, 10, 15 countries adopting similar rules … is Facebook going to cut ties with Germany, with France?” he asked, saying that at some point Facebook’s approach would become “totally unsustainable”.
University of Toronto professor Megan Boler, who specializes in social media, said the Facebook action marked a turning point which would require a common international approach.
“We could actually see a coalition, a united front against this monopoly, which could be very powerful,” she said in a phone interview.
This week, Facebook said news makes up less than 4% of content people see on the platform but contended that it helped Australian publishers generate about AU $407 million last year.
Google has signed 500 deals worth around $1 billion over three years with publishers around the world for its new News Showcase service and is in talks with Canadian companies.
Guilbeault said Google would still be subject to the new Canadian new law, since Ottawa wanted an approach that was fair, transparent and predictable.
“What’s to say that Google – tomorrow, six months, a year from now – doesn’t change its mind and says its doesn’t want to do that any more?” he said.
Lauren Skelly, a spokeswoman for Google in Canada, declined to comment on Guilbeault’s remarks, saying the company did not know details of the legislation.
Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, said Canada should aspire to Google’s approach, where companies put money into content that provided added value.
“If we follow the Australian model … we’ll find ourself in much the same spot,” he said by phone. “Everybody loses. The media organizations lose … Facebook loses.”
Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook in Canada, said there were “other options to support news in Canada that will more fairly benefit publishers of all sizes”.
The move, however, while sure to push more money into a struggling news industry, could also create a bone of contention with some of the bigwigs of the tech industry, much like it has in Australia.
What exactly is happening in Australia?
Facing a proposed law to compel internet companies to pay news organizations, Google has announced deals with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Seven West Media. No financial details were released. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. is in negotiations.
Google accounts for 53 per cent of Australian online advertising revenue and Facebook sits at 23 per cent, according to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
Google had threatened to make its search engine unavailable in Australia in response to the legislation, which would create a panel to make pricing decisions on news.
On Thursday, Facebook responded by blocking users from accessing and sharing Australian news.
Facebook said the proposed law “ignores the realities” of its relationship with publishers that use its service to “share news content.” That was despite Frydenberg saying this week Google and Facebook “do want to enter into these commercial arrangements.”
What does this mean for the public?
Google’s agreement means a new revenue stream for news outfits, but whether that translates into more coverage for readers, viewers and listeners is unclear.
The union for Australian journalists is calling on media companies to make sure online revenue goes into news gathering.
“Any monies from these deals need to end up in the newsroom, not the boardroom,” said Marcus Strom, president of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. “We will be pressing the case for transparency on how these funds are spent.”
What is happening in other countries?
Australia’s proposed law would be the first of its kind, but other governments also are pressuring Google, Facebook and other internet companies to pay news outlets and other publishers for material.
In Europe, Google had to negotiate with French publishers after a court last year upheld an order saying such agreements were required by a 2019 European Union copyright directive.
France is the first government to enforce the rules, but the decision suggests Google, Facebook and other companies will face similar requirements in other parts of the 27-nation trade bloc.
Google and a group of French publishers have announced a framework agreement for the American company to negotiate licensing deals with individual publishers. The company has deals with outlets including the newspaper Le Monde and the weekly magazine l’Obs.
Last year, Facebook announced it would pay U.S. news organizations including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and USA Today for headlines. No financial details were released.
In Spain, Google shut down its news website after a 2014 law required it to pay publishers.
Why does this matter?
Developments in Australia and Europe suggest the financial balance between multibillion-dollar internet companies and news organizations might be shifting.
Australia is responding to complaints internet companies should share advertising and other revenue connected to news reports, magazine articles and other content that appears on their websites or is shared by users.
The government acted after its competition regulator tried and failed to negotiate a voluntary payment plan with Google. The proposed law would create a panel to make binding decisions on the price of news reports to help give individual publishers more negotiating leverage with global internet companies.
In the meantime, access occasionally could suffer: Facebook’s move Thursday initially blocked some Australian commercial and government communications pages.
With files from Reuters and AP