Australia vs. Big Tech

On Thursday, news content vanished from Facebook in Australia

On Thursday morning Facebook banned news content from their platform in Australia. The ban included content from both Australian and international news outlets. This might seem sudden and radical, but it is part of an ongoing battle between the Australian government and ‘Big Tech’.

In Australia, like in many countries, ‘Big Tech’ companies (Facebook, Google) wield a huge amount of power. In Australia, like in many countries, Google is the dominant search engine. And, in Australia, like in many countries, people get a large proportion of their news from social media sites. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020 found that 52% of Australians used social media as a source of news.

None of this may seem like an issue. However, in Australia, like in many countries, the news industry is crumbling. Jobs are being lost and outlets have been forced to close. This is happening while billion-dollar companies use content freely provided by struggling news agencies.

In 2020, the Australian government decided to draft a ‘news code’. If passed into law, it would enable news companies to negotiate as a bloc with tech firms and receive payment for their content. It would be a much-needed injection of cash into Australia’s struggling news industry.

But ‘Big Tech’ fought back. Mel Silva (Managing Director of Google Australia and New Zealand) said the law was “not compatible with how search engines work”. In January, Google threatened to withdraw its search engine from Australia if the law was passed. In reply to Google, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia does not “respond to threats”.

Eventually, Google gave in to the Australian government and started paying news outlets for their content. Facebook did not follow suit.

On the 17th of February, with very little warning, William Easton (Managing Director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand) announced that Facebook would ban Australians from sharing or viewing news on their platform. He stated, “the proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content”.

The move leaves Australia, Google and Facebook in a difficult position. What effect will a news blackout on Facebook mean for the country? What if Google decides to follow suit? Will Australia continue to stand up to them? What does this mean for the news industry?

While this episode is playing out in Australia, it is not an issue unique to the country. News industries around the world are struggling to make ends meet and ‘Big Tech’ companies hold enormous, monopolistic power on information in most nations. So, what happens next is not only important for Australia but for all of us.

It matters because information matters and this could have a material impact on how we receive our news. It matters because competition matters and small independent news outlets are being squeezed to extinction. It matters because no one company should have so much power.

(Just before I uploaded this ABC, a domestic Australian news outlet, had shot to the top of App Store charts in Australia. Meanwhile, Nieman Lab reports that traffic to Australian news publishers has gone down 93% since the ban.)

— Jonathan Lewis (@lonnyjewis)