Facebook is making a leap to power in Australia and could regret it.
For years, in the midst of a slew of privacy controversies, antitrust litigation and allegations that it allowed hate speech and populism to undermine democracy, Facebook has been in a defensive crouch. However, it suddenly pivoted early Thursday to take the offensive in Australia, where it lowered the boom on publishers and the government with a sudden decision to block news across the entire nation on its website.
The power play could easily backfire, considering how worried many governments have become about the company’s unregulated control over culture, democracy and political debate, a response to an Australian law that would require Facebook to pay publishers to use their news stories. But it’s still a surprising reminder of just how much influence CEO Mark Zuckerberg can exert at the touch of a figurative ass.
“Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and professor at Syracuse University, said, “Zuckerberg’s flex here reveals how he can disrupt global access to news in a heartbeat. “No company should have that much influence over journalistic access.”
The step by Facebook suggests that people in Australia can no longer post links on Facebook to news reports. In the meantime, outside Australia, no one will post links to Aussie news sources like the Sydney Morning Herald.
Facebook said its partnership with publishers who use its service to propel their stories around the globe “ignores the realities” of the proposed legislation. Significant questions have also been raised by technology and media experts. In January, Timothy Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist known as the World Wide Web founder, told an Australian Senate committee that the precedent of the legislation could potentially ruin the internet by demanding payment for links that have always been free.
The bill hasn’t come into force. Negotiations between the tech firms, the government of Australia and the media giants of the country, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., may lead to changes in the final edition.
What can’t be altered, however, is the dramatic, if ham-handed, attempt by Facebook to force the question. The firm gave no warning about its decision to block Australian news and so clumsily enforced the ban that it blocked many innocent bystanders.
“As the law does not provide a clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” said Facebook spokeswoman Mari Melguizo, who added that the company would unblock any pages that were blocked by mistake.
Even if there are problems with the rule, including the fact that it stands to help media giants like News Corp., Facebook’s reaction was not justified, said Elizabeth Renieris, director of the Notre Dame-IBM Technology Ethics Lab. The show of strength by Facebook, she said, is “really going to wake up regulators all over the world.”
“Facebook is not compatible with democracy if it is not already clear,” Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island who heads a House subcommittee that has called for antitrust action against the company, wrote on Twitter. “The ultimate admission of monopoly power is to threaten to bring an entire country to its knees to agree to Facebook’s terms.”
Democrats announced on Thursday that they would hold fresh hearings to restrict online platforms and amend antitrust legislation.
For vital information, not just news, but charity and government pages, emergency announcements and other critical outlets, billions of people around the world depend on Facebook. Many of these, including humanitarian organizations such as Foodbank Australia and Doctors without Borders in Australia, which found their pages temporarily disabled, were swept up by Facebook’s news blackout.
The ban affected articles from major international news organization and small neighborhood newspapers or radio stations alike. These restrictions have potentially deprived many Australians of basic COVID-19 or the country’s fire season details on Facebook from a business that is dedicated to creating “connection and community.”
The tech company has faced years of scrutiny for allowing disinformation to fester on its platform about politics and the coronavirus. Critics say they fear that it would only exacerbate that issue by robbing Australian users of legitimate news outlets.
Tama Leaver, an internet studies and social media specialist at Curtin University in Australia, said during an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio Perth on Wednesday, ‘Playing this game in Australia would fill people’s feeds with misinformation.’
But for many users, a news-free Facebook could also be a more enjoyable experience, said Drew Margolin, a communication professor at Cornell University. If it had offered Australians an option to opt out of the news, Facebook would have been better off, he proposed. If many did, with the government and publishers, the firm might have used it for leverage.
What happens when they say that we’re about to turn it back on and say that we’re not ready, please? “Said he.