SYDNEY — Facebook said Thursday it would ban users in Australia from sharing or reading news articles on its site and bar anyone outside the country from seeing anything from an Australian news outlet, an aggressive move against a proposal to force the social media behemoth to pay the media for profiting off its content.
The company announced the abrupt move in a blog post just a day after the Australian government moved forward with a proposed law called the news media bargaining code. The provision would force search engines and social media companies to pay media outlets for using their content, a landmark measure that could bolster beleaguered publications that have struggled for a piece of the digital advertising pie.
The bill, which has been subject to months of brinkmanship and threats, passed in the Australian House of Representatives on Wednesday night and is expected to soon pass in the Senate. It could become law as early as next week.
“This is not the outcome we wanted, and it’s a step we take reluctantly,” Facebook said in a statement. “The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.”
Australians looking on their Facebook feeds saw some of the country’s biggest media brands stripped of their posts, including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Broadcasting Co. and The Guardian. Smaller enterprises, including HuffPost’s Australian branch, were also affected.
But a bevy of other pages, including those used by the Australian government, the Rural Fire Service, health departments and charities, were also scrubbed in the process (Facebook later said these pages would be restored).
The move prompted fierce backlash from local politicians.
“Facebook needs to think very carefully about what this means for its reputation and standing,” Paul Fletcher, the country’s communications minister, told the ABC. “At a time when there are already questions about the credibility of information on Facebook, that is something that they will obviously need to think about.”
Facebook has argued the bargaining code — which would also mandate Facebook give media outlets notice of algorithm changes — does not treat each company differently. Google, Facebook argued, features news content without any input from the publishers while news outlets intentionally upload their stories to Facebook.
“Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news, and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content,” the company said. “On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue.”
“Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million,” Facebook added. “Despite some of these discussions, Facebook does not steal, take or copy news content.”
Publishers, however, have long argued that they struggle to get even a piece of digital advertising budgets and are subject to the whims of tech companies who can change overnight what content is successful.
The money at stake is huge. A report released by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found Facebook, Google and YouTube earned more than 80% of digital advertising revenue in the country. Facebook had a banner year in 2020, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting a 21% increase in advertising revenue and bringing in more than $84 billion globally.
Google also took umbrage with the bargaining code and threatened to pull out of the country last month but later relented in part. The search giant began cutting deals with some of Australia’s biggest media empires in recent days, pledging to pay millions for access to their content. On Wednesday, Google said it would pay a “significant” amount for content from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp over the next three years, and another deal with Nine Entertainment Co. is worth $23 million annually.
Australia’s treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said he had spoken with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday morning following the decision and that the pair had a “constructive discussion.”
“He raised a few remaining issues with the Government’s news media bargaining code and we agreed to continue our conversation to try to find a pathway forward,” Frydenberg wrote on Twitter.