Facebook refuses to be extorted

The Spinoff reports:

At 7.38am today a short email arrived from Facebook News Partnerships. It contained a total of five sentences, the most important reading: “I am writing to confirm that due to new laws in Australia, from today we will reluctantly restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content on Facebook.”

Despite its matter-of-fact tone and brevity, it could hardly be more consequential – this is the end (for now, maybe forever) of Facebook as a news distribution channel in Australia. Facebook says news represents less than 4% of content on its platform – but for publishers it can be the source of as much as half their traffic. And for Facebook, the risk is that even if it is only 4% of content, if users consider it critical, do they become less reliant on the platform?

The backdrop to this is the Morrison Government was planning to legislate to force big tech companies to fund media companies. This was of course very popular with media companies. Normally one would not expect this sort of attack on property rights from a centre right Government, but I suspect the power of the Murdoch press is responsible.

Facebook would have been forced to pay money to media companies when either the media company themselves or a user shared their news story on Facebook. So they have taken the entirely logical decision to block such sharing, so they don’t have to pay for promoting the media’s stories.

The timing is instructive – Google, which had previously held firm with Facebook on its own, far more consequential threat to withdraw search from Australia, yesterday capitulated and signed a revenue share deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp. Google has been doing deals with all major news providers in the lead up to the code passing. In total, Google will be paying at least $100m a year to evade the code.

Important to note Google is not paying the money for search, as the code was mandating. It is for a new product called Google News Showcase.

We as Internet users should be very worried about any precedent of search engines having to pay companies to be featured in search results. It would undermine the entire utility of search.

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