So, the House of Representatives has passed a bill requiring Google and Facebook to pay money to certain media outlets for content they link to within Australia. Initially Google threatened to block Australians from using their search engine if the legislation passed, but they came around and started negotiating compromise deals with commercial media outlets instead. Facebook, on the other hand, has responded this morning by blocking Australians from sharing “news” on their platform, and blocked “news” accounts from continuing operating (and due to the broad way “news” was defined in the legislation, this has also affected weather bureaus, emergency services, health authorities, trade unions, community groups, charities, and so forth).
The intent of this legislation was always to funnel money from Google and Facebook to large commercial media outlets – which in Australia are almost all right-wing. Channel 7, Channel 9, and of course, NewsCorp. The public broadcasters (ABC and SBS) were included only after the Greens insisted on it – although of course, the government will probably use that as an excuse to slash their funding even more. Outlets with annual revenue below $150,000 are still excluded, so small and independent outlets will be left out. The favouritism shown towards large commercial media is quite deliberate; we have a horrendous right-wing government that relies on media complicity to not lose that last bit of public support that would see them lose office (they currently have a margin of one seat).
And yet, if you think about it, what this bill proposes is blatantly ridiculous. Section 52B states that a website “makes content available” not only by reproducing it in full, but also by reproducing an extract, or even just linking to it. Despite the contempt I have for Google and Facebook, it seems pretty obvious that news outlets are not having their work “stolen” by links to it appearing on those sites – they benefit far more than they suffer from that arrangement. Now if the legislation applied solely to Google AMP-type arrangements where the tech giants actually replicate content in full on their own servers, that would be a different thing entirely.
If the government really wanted money from Google and Facebook to go to Australian media, they would do so by stopping the massive tax evasion of these multinational companies, and use the revenue to provide funding to media outlets directly (preferably not just the large commercial ones – perhaps they could restore some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve taken away from the ABC over their time in government, and offer funding for small and independent outlets – regional papers, outlets serving multicultural and LGBTQIA communities, that kind of thing).
I also can’t stand the ALP’s position on this, which is the same position they’ve taken on a number of other horrific bills (particularly tech and attacks-on-civil-liberties ones): pass the legislation, then turn around and shriek, “omg we had no idea it was that bad!” Literally the entire point of you as a parliamentary opposition is to read bills and not approve them if they suck!! Why do you do this?! Why are you like this every time?
For me personally I guess I’m not affected too much, because I already don’t use Google Search and I barely use Facebook (I POSSE some photos there, and I try to check it a few minutes each day to keep up with family/friends who don’t use any other social media). For other ordinary internet users, I think this is a glaring example of why you should never put all your eggs in one basket (i.e. do all your internet browsing via Facebook or Google). However, I do have a lot of sympathy for the organisations that were never going to see any benefit from this bill and are now blocked anyway. For example, community groups which have built up large-ish Facebook presences because y’know… that’s where the community they were trying to reach out to is. It’s one thing to say, “No one should be using Facebook!” but if you want to achieve things in the here and now, you have to be realistic about where people are at, too.
I don’t expect this situation with Facebook to last too long. The government’s majority is fragile enough that I’m sure they’ll be scrambling for a way to appease them. What that compromise looks like remains to be seen, though. They wouldn’t want to capitulate to such an extent that they piss off NewsCorp, either. Maybe it will come to apply solely to situations where Facebook and Google have cached AMP pages on their own servers. Regardless of what happens, one thing I can say with certainty is: this is the kind of debate where every side sucks, and it’s small organisations and us ordinary internet users stuck in the crossfire.