Facebook blindsides Australia in bare knuckle struggle over paying for news

Are the tech oligarchs more powerful than most of the nations of the world?  Based on the actions of Facebook hours ago, it appears that Mark Zuckerberg thinks they are.

We are seeing a test case unfold as Australia, the continent-sized advanced nation with a population of 25 million, has been blindsided by Facebook during a dispute over legislation requiring tech giants including Facebook and Google to compensate Australian news outlets for content they feature.  Australian news media have seen "a 75% decline in advertising revenue since 2005, according to the government," and with their survival in question, the government there has sought a cut of the vast advertising profits reaped by the Big Tech firms that feature their content.

Alexis Carey of News.com.au reports:

Facebook has responded to a proposed new law by banning Australian users from reading or sharing news on its platform.

The stunning decision was made in retaliation to Australia's proposed new Media Bargaining law, with the federal government pushing forward with a plan to force social media giants to pay for news content.

Facebook's abrupt high-handed ban contrasts sharply with Google, which started coming to terms with Australia's demand.  The New York Times reports:

Facebook and Google have fought hard to prevent the Australian law — which is expected to pass this week or next — from forcing their hands. But on Wednesday, the two companies sharply diverged on how to head off that regulatory future.

Google began the day by unveiling a three-year global agreement with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp to pay for the publisher's news content, one of several such deals it has announced recently where it appears to be effectively capitulating to publishers' demands. Hours later, Facebook took the opposite tack and said it would restrict people and publishers from sharing or viewing news links in Australia, in a move that was effective immediately.

Australia's prime minister is reacting with anger.  The Guardian:

The Australian government has been blindsided by Facebook suddenly blocking all news on the platform in Australia but says the "heavy-handed" move will not stop parliament from passing landmark laws to force tech giants to pay for journalism.  (snip)

Facebook is opposed to the federal government's proposed news media code, which has already passed the lower house of parliament and is expected to soon pass the upper house.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, took to Facebook on Thursday to argue the platform's show of strength would "confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them".

"Facebook's actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing," Morrison wrote on Facebook. "They may be changing the world, but that doesn't mean they run it."

The federal communications minister, Paul Fletcher, warned that companies that operate in Australia "need to comply with the laws passed by the elected parliament of this nation".

Facebook is not backing down, as the Associated Press reports:

"The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content," Facebook regional managing director William Easton said.

"It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter," Easton added.

The "heavy hearted" move came as shock to the Australian government:

The announcement comes a day after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg described as "very promising" negotiations between Facebook and Google with Australian media companies.

Australia's Prime Minister Morrison was not amused, as The Guardian reports:

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, took to Facebook on Thursday to argue the platform's show of strength would "confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them".

"Facebook's actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing," Morrison wrote on Facebook. "They may be changing the world, but that doesn't mean they run it." (snip)

The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, condemned Facebook's decision to block Australians' access to government pages in the middle of a pandemic — including on bushfires, mental health, emergency services and even the Bureau of Meteorology — saying they were "completely unrelated" to the proposed news media bargaining code.

The heavy-handedness of Facebook extended to the details of implementation of its ban.  Via The Guardian:

The social media platform, used by 18 million Australians, prevented the sharing of news and wiped clean the pages of media companies, including the public broadcaster's television, radio and non-news pages, and inadvertently wiped community, women's health and domestic violence support pages in the process.

Facebook is not taking responsibility but is reversing the ban.

Facebook blamed the government's definition of news content in the media bargaining code for the "inadvertent" blanket ban on government pages on Facebook — an interpretation the government rejects.

"Government pages should not be impacted by today's announcement," a Facebook spokesperson said. The company said it would reverse the ban on those pages.

"The actions we're taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content," Facebook said. "As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted."

Facebook enjoys a near monopoly because almost everyone is already on it.  But if it drives away its audience in Australia, it may find that MeWe or another competitor can step up and replace it, especially if nationalist sentiment is aggravated by its high-handed attitude.  The very universality of the internet means that people in other nations, particularly the English-speaking world, can learn about the experience of Australia and follow suit.

For once, the media are not on the side of the oligarchs.  They have been stripped of their command of advertising markets and are not available to propagandize for Facebook the way they propagandize for other projects of the oligarchy.  This situation bears close watching in the days ahead.