Facebook stomps on small publishers

Facebook unfriended all of Australia last week. Locked in a battle with the Federal government over legislation which would force it to pay for links to news publications, it wiped Australian news sources from viewer’s feeds.

So when you checked your Facebook feed on February 18, you didn't see anything from The Australian, The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun, Daily Telegraph or, initially, the Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, Western Sydney Health, South Australia Health, various state health services and some state Governments. This is in the middle of the fire season and a Covid-19 pandemic, for which many people rely on Facebook for updates.

You also didn't see anything from MercatorNet or BioEdge, our related publication about bioethical issues. They’re news sources; they’re published in Australia; and they’re cancelled.

Basically, Facebook has screwed us.  

Websites like MercatorNet grow when readers share links to stories that they like. There are other ways to achieve this, but the most powerful and efficient one is through Facebook. MercatorNet’s marketing plan is based on Facebook. And now Facebook has stomped on us like Godzilla squashing an ant. Do not ask me what I think of Mark Zuckerberg.

Let me try to be objective for a moment. What are the issues behind Facebook’s astonishing decision?

Traditional news media are in danger of extinction. Everywhere newspapers are losing circulation to internet news sources. Nearly 1,800 newspapers closed in the United States between 2004 and 2018, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies.

Between them, Google and Facebook have sucked up 81 percent of online advertising in Australia. News media only have about 19 percent.

The media companies can only fight back with government help. In Australia they have proposed a statutory media bargaining code and the government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is backing it to the hilt. The idea is that Google and Facebook will be forced to compensate the media companies for using the news that they display. Google has agreed; Facebook gave the Australian Government the finger.

Facebook acknowledges that news in a Facebook feed “enriches” a user’s experience. But it claims that it adds almost no commercial value. It also says that fewer than 5 percent of clicks on Facebook come from news stories. Why should it be forced to pay for giving a free platform to news organisations? The new law, it says, "fundamentally misunderstands the relationship" between its platform and publishers who use it to share news content." (Translation: Facebook is a for-profit company, not a goddam charity.)

Furthermore, as they say, “the internet wants to be free”. The internet will be broken if users have to pay for links. Other countries, particularly in Europe, are waiting to see what happens in Australia. So Facebook has to make a stand here or it will be forced to strike deals with traditional media companies everywhere.

You know what? I sympathise with Facebook’s frustration. Behind the Australian government’s proposal is Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd, which owns more than half of the country’s newspaper market. Zuckerberg probably feels that Rupert Murdoch is using the Australian government to shake him down for subsidies to a dying industry. He’s probably right.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who loathes Murdoch, recently tweeted: “You cannot argue with a straight face that Zuckerberg has a monopoly on the internet, while ignoring the objective reality that Murdoch has a monopoly in print. The answer is to subject both companies to a Royal Commission, not side with one billionaire against the other.”

But leave that for another day.

Today’s issue is that Facebook is using raw commercial power to blackmail a sovereign nation. It is displaying contempt for the government and for its users in Australia. In its battle to stay unregulated, it is creating immense collateral damage.

The fact that Zuckerberg fails to face up to is that Facebook has become a quasi-public utility and now it is abusing its monopoly power. World-wide, it has 2.6 billion users. It is the principal source of news for many of those readers. Without news in their Facebook feed, democracy dies in the hearts of those users. If they don’t read MercatorNet (or The Australian) in their feed, they’re not going to search out the websites. They’re going to look at more cat videos.

Facebook’s chess game displays not just jaw-dropping arrogance, but the immaturity of geeks who have spent most of their lives in their mother's basement. Commercial companies serve the public and have to act in a socially responsible way. Facebook seems to be channeling the bullyboy capitalism of the United Fruit Company in Central America.

As the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, pointed out: “The social network is destroying its social license to operate. Facebook actions mean the company's failures in privacy, disinformation, and data protection will require a bigger push for stronger government regulation.”

Sure, Facebook has a case. As Salvatore Babones writes in Foreign Policy, “If Australians don’t want to pay for news about their own country, it’s hardly the responsibility of foreign companies to foot the bill for them.”

But that doesn’t excuse its kick-sand-in-your-face tactics. In this battle of monsters, it’s crushing innocent bystanders – like MercatorNet.


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