Some of you may remember a blog post I wrote last year about Google and Australia's News Media industry going to toe-to-toe. Well, many Australians both at home and abroad got their first taste of hardball from team tech giant when Facebook blocked all access to Australian news media links, sites and pages for all Australians this week. If you were one of the many, many people who woke up and was surprised to find one of their favourite social media platforms full of pitchfork wielding keyboard warriors ranting about legislation and unfair treatment by tech companies, well here's a guide to understand what the hell is going on.
Pictured: Australians checking Facebook on the morning of Feb 18th
First, a recap
Let's start by defining some teams. In this fight, there are currently three major players.
Team News Media (and their lovely cheerleaders, the Australian Federal Government)
Team News Media are the ones who effectively kicked this whole thing off. In a confusing attempt to try and make money off of other people advertising their work for them, they have been working with the government to introduce legislation that would require the tech giants to pay for the right to host links back to News Media content. For those playing at home, this is a service that Google (and to a lesser extent, Facebook) have always provided for free - if you want to consume the news, they give you a way to access it on their platform. It's faster and easier for you to see relevant news, and it results in increased readership for the publisher (facts that Team News Media seem to be selectively ignoring). The Australian Government, for their part, have been surprisingly passive; happy to let the News Media dictate their expectations and make it law without much review of the potential impact this will have on the lives of Australians.
Team Tech Giants
Team Tech Giants refers to the two major social players in the game (and pretty much all games everywhere); Google and Facebook. Team Tech Giants want to maintain the status quo where everyone wins - they benefit from people associating their companies with trustworthy, reliable news content, and Team News Media benefits by getting access to their community of tens of millions. Team Tech Giants have been warning that passing this legislation would have a dire impact on their ability to provide their service in a cheap, effective manner for months, and today we saw them make their first major move.
Team Australia is made up of the population of Australia, unfortunately caught up in the midst of this clash of titans, as tends to be the case.
What actually happened yesterday?
Yesterday (on the 18th of Feb if you're in the future right now), Facebook made good on their promise (or threat, depending on where you're standing) of restricting content so that they aren't forced to pay for the privilege of sharing it. While the impact was sudden, with many Australian's waking up in the morning to find the policy enacted, it was a move that had been discussed as an option ever since the bargaining code was first discussed.
So what was actually banned? According to Facebook's own press release;
- Australian news publishers cannot share or post to their Facebook pages,
- International news publishers will have their posts blocked for users in Australia (based on IP),
- Australian Facebook users are unable to view or share Australian or International news content or content from news pages on Facebook, and
- International Facebook users are unable to view or share Australian news content or content from Australian news pages.
It's worth mentioning that Facebook was not particularly effective in their banning practice, with many non-news, government affiliated sites getting caught up as well. Some of the bigger, more important victims were pages like the Bureau of Meteorology that often provides storm and weather warnings via Facebook, Emergency Services, Health and Government sites that were providing important COVID and associated vaccine rollout information and a myriad of small, independent media that require social media publications to function. Most egregiously (in my opinion), satirical faux-news sites like the Betoota Advocate also found themselves briefly, and at the worst possible time, mistaken for legitimate news outlets and similarly banned. Much can be said for how poorly handled the banning process went and Facebook has been fixing their restrictions and apologising for their mistakes since the bans went live.
Will it come back?
At this stage, who knows? It's fair to say that Team News Media of Australia and Team Tech Giant are locked in a staring contest, and the rest of us will just need to wait for someone to blink. Or pass out. My money is on it returning at some point, but probably not for a little while yet.
Who should we be mad at?
Well, that depends on who you are. As usual, there are no winners in this scenario, but there is one specific loser - the Facebook-using, Australian population.
While at the outset, Facebook's actions come across as pretty anti-consumer, it makes a lot of business sense. Facebook did not ask for this news to be shared on their platform, nor did they commission it, nor do they have any control over it... why should they be paying just because someone else is sharing it? Facebook isn't a news organisation - the real news organisations are the ones who tried to turn it into one by sharing their content on the Facebook platform.
From the other side, Facebook is clearly attempting to throw its weight around and bully the Team News Media right back. Doing so in the middle of the pandemic is ill-advised at best, but you could make the same argument for the News Media and Australian Government - surely there are other things happening right now that should maybe take more precedence? It's also no secret that Facebook is hardly the most ethical or upstanding example of big business. People have declaimed their use of personal data and censorship of "free speech" for years and these issues have not gone away - people often ask why Facebook gets to choose what updates we see. The easy answer is because it's their platform - they have no requirement to maintain journalistic integrity, they aren't journalists. The solution is, as it always has been - if you don't like they way their service operates, stop using it.
All that said, social media addiction is real, and there's no ignoring the fact that many people use Facebook as a catchall solution for their understanding of the world. To them, Facebook's actions pose a real risk; limiting their access to professional journalism considerably.
What happened to Google?
In short, I imagine they are watching things play out very, very closely. Last week, Google signed some major deals ($30M+) with Nine Entertainment (a big player in Team News Media) that would allow them to publish news content from Nine Entertainment on their branded News channels (Google Showcase). This agreement was preceded by a similar agreement with Seven West Media, the first News Media brand to come to an agreement. These agreements may sound like a step back on the part of Team Tech Giants, but it's important to note that neither agreement discusses the functionality of Google's search function or search engine (the way 99% of people use Google - searching for stuff). While it is still big that agreements are being made, the real question is whether or not Google will make the same call as Facebook and limit the easiest method of access to news content for Australian users on the internet.
The reason that the future of the search tools specifically is important is that it represents a major tool Australian's use to learn about news. While the ability to search has always been free and the average user can be relatively sure that the results they get will be high quality, if Google chooses to block News Media content in their search, then gone are the days of Googling current events. The only ways to access up to date reporting will be to;
- Start using Bing, like our fearless leader recommended (which is a legitimately ridiculous idea), or
- Pick your news service of choice and visit their website whenever you want to learn what's going on.
Not only do these represent an extra step of effort, but they also result in significantly less variety of reporting and increased partisanship... especially if your news service of choice is restricted to NewsCorp given Rupert Murdoch's approach to bias (which is to say; as biased as physically possible).
What should you do now?
Well, that depends on how much you're affected by the sudden blocking of news on Facebook. Here are a few tips for how to ensure you stay educated on current events without the support of everyone's favourite echo chamber.
- Reduce your reliance on social media
Yeah, easier said than done - I know. Relying on someone else's platform for information or business is unwise, as you have no control over the business decisions they make. This is a problem that has affected YouTube creators for years; they rely on YouTube to function in a certain way, and when the algorithm is changed without their knowledge, everything falls apart. If you're a business, grow on your own platform and use Facebook for what it is - one of many channels, not the only option. If you're a user, start to diversify where you get you information from... you never know when one might go away.
- Download some news apps
Note that I said apps, not app. Every News Media company has bias, some are just worse than others. Do yourself a favour and try and consume your news from more than one source so that you can see more than one side of the story wherever possible.
- Avoid treating the many blogs that might pop up as quality news sources
There is a pretty good chance that we're about to see a sudden increase in news blogs that fly under the radar of the Facebook ban. Do your best to assess these blogs for bias and quality before choosing them as your new news service of choice.
- Do your best to campaign for the Government to reconsider their position on the news media bargaining code
Some of you will disagree with me here and that's fine, but this situation is why the news media bargaining code was such a bad idea in the first place. The Tech Giants, for all their many flaws, provide access and convenience, increasing the populations ability to consume news media. Team News Media trying to monetise that access is greedy and exhibits a clear misunderstanding of how the internet works.
Otherwise, all we can do is sit back, play the new hand we've been dealt and hope really hard that someone taps out before Google decides to follow in Facebook's footsteps.