Australia forces Facebook to support journalists

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday the 11th day of March, 2021.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. 

First up, unfriending Australia.

Last month, Facebook faced off with the Australian government over new legislation targeting its bottom line. Lawmakers there said if Facebook wants to allow users to post links to news reports, it needs to pay the publishers. To show its displeasure, the social media giant blocked all posts by Australian news outlets. Newspapers and television stations couldn’t share links to their stories. Neither could readers and viewers.

REICHARD: After a week-long news blackout, lawmakers agreed to a compromise. But the dustup is far from over and could soon pop up on U.S. news feeds.

WORLD’s Leigh Jones reports now on what’s driving the dispute.

FRYDENBERG: Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary. They were heavy handed and they will damage its reputation here in Australia.

LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: That’s Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg at a news conference that people who only get their news on Facebook never saw.

Earlier that day, Facebook blocked content from all Australian news providers in response to a proposed law requiring it to pay for that content. Unfortunately for Facebook, the algorithm that triggered the news blackout inadvertently blocked posts from government websites, including state health departments and emergency services.

That unleashed a torrent of anger about the amount of control Facebook has over just about everything.

FRYDENBERG: What today’s events do confirm for all Australians is the immense market power of these media digital giants.

So what prompted this very public dispute?

Bronwyn Howell studies telecommunications and regulation at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

HOWELL: The justification that they gave for introducing the legislation was that they needed to prop up the markets for the creation of public good news content.

Australian newspapers have complained for years about losing advertising revenue to digital media companies. Revenue they relied on to pay reporters. That loss was especially painful because at least some of the content that attracts users to social media comes from newspapers.

So Australian lawmakers proposed a solution: Google and Facebook would have to pay traditional media outlets any time their content appeared on the digital platforms. Google quickly inked deals with major media groups, including Rupert Murdochs’ News Corp. But Facebook balked and opted to pull all Australian media content from its platform.

Bronwyn Howell says we should be concerned over the shrinking number of independent journalists able to speak truth to power.

HOWELL: But the question is, what is the appropriate business model to address this, and is taxing the people who have taken ad revenue because they have market power in that market the appropriate way of dealing with this particular problem?

Although angry over Facebook’s blackout power play, Australian lawmakers agreed to amend the bill. The final version adopted February 25th does not set specific payment amounts. Instead, it gives the company time to make its own deals with publishers. Government regulators will only step in if the companies can’t reach an agreement on how much news content is worth.

But Facebook and Google are still required to pay for the news they’d previously distributed for free.

And other countries are taking notice. Jason Thacker is chair of research in technology ethics at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

THACKER: It wouldn’t surprise me if countries around the world see this as a moment to kind of increase the way that they’re thinking about these technology companies and their influence, in many ways to even check some of the power that these companies have accrued over a number of years without being under the public scrutiny.

And Thacker says those debates are crucial for the future, especially for Christians.

THACKER: And so that’s where I think we need a new vision and thoughtful engagement coming from the Christian community to step into these questions. Let’s have the public debate and the public discourse of them, because they’re very important to our society and kind of the future of the way that we connect with one another.

But what about U.S. journalists? Do they want government assistance?

LONGINOW: I think a lot of journalists would say, thank you, but no. We do not need your help. 

Michael Longinow is a journalism professor at Biola University in southern California. He believes U.S. media outlets value their freedom too much to seek government intervention.

LONGINOW: Because when you do that, it means you got your hand in our pocket. And, you know, we’re vulnerable. So. So that’s where it’s gonna come down to is, what does the First Amendment mean, in the context of an economy that requires profitability? It’s just a really interesting tension.

American newspapers have lost as much ad revenue to digital platforms as their counterparts in Australia. And many smaller newspapers have gone out of business, leaving swaths of the country without local coverage. But Longinow says that doesn’t mean journalism is dead.

LONGINOW: What I find interesting is how even in those news deserts, people are finding out ways to inform each other about why my street’s not paved, or why the trash wasn’t picked up, or what was that gunshot I heard in my neighborhood last night. And so people are finding ways of informing themselves.

Most of Longinow’s students do get their news through social media platforms. But they’re also dissatisfied with them.

LONGINOW: I think this generation that’s coming out of our schools in these next few years, are looking at big tech and they’re saying, I don’t like the way this is operating. I think I can find a better way of doing this. And it’s going to be some 18 year olds gonna come up with this new way of doing what big tech is doing. And it’s gonna blow it all up. And I just love that.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leigh Jones.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) This May 16, 2012 file photo shows the Facebook logo displayed on an iPad in Philadelphia. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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