All eyes on Murdoch as Facebook row deepens

Divisions down under: Politicians accuse Facebook of bullying. It says it won’t put money in Murdoch’s pocket.

Was Facebook right to ban news content in Australia? As the tech giant responds to a new law, some warn this is a battle with only one real winner – controversial media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Around the world, politicians and journalists were united in apoplectic fury.

“#Delete Facebook,” urged the front page of the Metro, one of the UK’s biggest newspapers.

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today... were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” declared Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

In the US, one politician went even further to condemn the company. “If it is not already clear, Facebook is not compatible with democracy,” announced David Cicilline, a Congressman from Rhode Island.

“Threatening to bring an entire country to its knees to agree to Facebook’s terms is the ultimate admission of monopoly power.”

But what is all the outrage really about?

Last Thursday morning, Australia’s Facebook users woke up to a new reality.

For months, the country’s lawmakers have been locked in a fierce battle with the tech giant over a proposed new law to make Google and Facebook pay media organisations for using their news content.

Now, with the new law set to go ahead, Facebook has played its ultimate trump card: banning news content from its Australian users altogether.

For Facebook’s executives, the decision was obvious. “The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share content,” argues William Easton, Facebook’s Australian managing director.

Facebook points out that it is a social media website, not an information hub. Journalism accounts for only 4% of all the content viewed on the platform by Australians. Yet last year, Facebook directed an astonishing five billion clicks to Australia’s news outlets, boosting the latter’s profits by £225m.

To put it simply, news media needs Facebook more than Facebook needs news media.

Moreover, critics say the new law, which was pushed heavily by controversial media boss Rupert Murdoch, violates the fundamental principle of a free and open internet by demanding payment for web traffic.

“This fight was not ‘Facebook v. Australia’ or ‘Facebook v. journalism’ even though some ignorant or dishonest people are making it out to be the case,” writes tech blogger Mike Masnick. “This was always ‘Rupert Murdoch v. the open web.’”

Indeed, with the divisions between global tech giants and Australia’s politicians widening by the hour, it is Murdoch himself who seems to be emerging as the real winner.

In January, Google threatened to remove its search engine from Australia if the country went ahead with the new law. But last week, the tech titan caved to lawmakers’ demands, striking deals to pay three major publishers, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, to use their content.

Now, Google too is under fire for funding News Corp, an organisation one academic recently described as “a propaganda operation masquerading as a news service”.

Was Facebook right to ban news content in Australia?

Face-off

Definitely not, say some. Facebook may be a private company, but its role in providing access to the news to millions of people makes it more like a public service. Cutting off Australians from the news overnight was clearly wrong. And whatever it says, Facebook makes money from people using its platform to read the news. Meanwhile, media organisations worldwide are struggling to survive.

Absolutely, say others. This was a Catch-22 situation for Facebook – condemned if they paid News Corp, or condemned if they blocked Australian users from accessing news. In the end, Facebook made the right decision. Sharing web links freely and openly is one of the fundamental principles of the open internet. Giving in to a new form of tax would have set a dangerous precedent.

You Decide

  1. Would the internet be a better place without big companies like Google or Facebook?
  2. Is social media bad for democracy?

Activities

  1. In groups, think of a name and design a logo for your own new social media network. Then write a list of five rules you would have for businesses and people who want to use the site.
  2. Do you think a similar law should be introduced in your country? Write a letter to a newspaper explaining your point of view.

Some People Say...

“None of the most powerful tech companies answer to what’s best for people, only to what’s best for them.”

Tristan Harris (1985 – ), American computer scientist and ethicist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that more and more people today rely on social media sites such as Facebook to access news. One 2019 survey found that Facebook is now the third most commonly used news source in the UK, behind BBC One and ITV. In turn, news organisations are also becoming increasingly reliant on social media platforms to direct traffic to their sites. Globally, approximately 25% of all inbound visitors to news sites come from social media.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether net neutrality – the basic principle that all web traffic should be treated equally and flow freely without taxes – should be the most important regulation governing the internet. World wide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee warned the Australian senate last year that, despite his concerns about Facebook, forcing companies to pay to spread certain links would make the internet unworkable. But others say regulating tech giants is more important.

Word Watch

Apoplectic
Very angry. The word originally comes from the Greek term apoplektikos, which meant “struck down by a stroke”.
Trump card
A valuable resource or move that can be used to gain an advantage. Originally used in card games to describe a valuable playing card that can help win a game.
Banning news content
Facebook has blocked Australian news sites from posting their content on Facebook and Australian users from viewing or sharing news from any source.
Rupert Murdoch
Australian-born Murdoch, who is 89, owns hundreds of publishing outlets worldwide through his company News Corp, including Fox News in the US and The Times in the UK.
Google
Unlike Facebook, news is at the heart of Google’s mission to “organise the world’s information”.
News Corp
News Corp owned News of the World, the paper at the centre of the 2011 UK phone hacking scandal.
Masquerading
Pretending to be something you are not. Many of News Corp’s papers and TV channels have been accused of political bias.
Catch-22
An inescapable dilemma. The phrase comes from the title of Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22, in which a soldier cannot be discharged from war unless he is declared insane. At the same time wanting to be discharged proves his sanity.
Precedent
An earlier event or action regarded as an example or guide to be considered in similar future circumstances.

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