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Social media: irked over govt plans, FB blocks sharing news in Australia

Virendra Pandit

New Delhi: Increasingly social media, which have enjoyed unfettered ‘freedom’ like a license for years, is facing intense scrutiny and heat in different countries that are trying to make them more responsible and follow the rules laid down in those nations.

Recently, India forced micro-blogging platform Twitter to climb down and block hundreds of Twitter handles being misused by anti-national forces in fanning violence and dissidence. Initially, Twitter boasted of ‘freedom’ but the government’s stern warning forced it to pipe down.

Similar situations are emerging in other countries as well, where technology platforms are facing increasing pressure to share revenue with news media they pick their feed from.

The latest case pertains to Australia where, on Wednesday, Facebook blocked the sharing of news in the country over the government’s proposed plans to make the social media pay local media groups for content. The FB move disrupted the pages of emergency services while triggering accusations of censorship, media reports said.

From early Thursday, Australians were unable to post links to news articles or view the Facebook pages of news outlets from anywhere in the world.

The Facebook move came as retaliation for laws proposed in Canberra that would force social media giants to pay for news content shared on their sites. The social media giant’s spokesperson said official government pages “should not be impacted by today’s announcement” and the company “will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted”.

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson described the FB block–which also impacted charities, indigenous community pages, and even Facebook’s own page–as an “alarming and dangerous turn of events”.

“Facebook is severely restricting and censoring the flow of information to Australians,” she said, adding, “Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.” Media groups and Australia’s government have also raised concerns that blocking verified news sources will allow misinformation to proliferate.

Several Facebook pages that regularly promote misinformation and conspiracy theories were unaffected by the ban, according to media reports.

Australian Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Facebook needed to think “very carefully” about blocking the pages of organizations that employ professional journalists with editorial policies and fact-checking processes in place.

“They’re effectively saying any information that is available on our site does not come from these reliable sources,” he told public broadcaster ABC.

Digital platforms have pushed back hard against the world-first Australian legislation, fearing it could create a global precedent that could require dramatic changes and hit their business model.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” said William Easton, Facebook’s manager for Australia and New Zealand.

“It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

Facebook’s hardball response contrasted with search engine Google, which has brokered deals with media groups. These included the one with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which encouraged the conservative Australian government to go ahead with a new law.

Australia’s Lower House (House of Representatives) passed the new legislation on Wednesday, which will now be taken up by the Upper House (Senate).

Social media giants, including FB, fear that their potential payments to regular media outlets for using their content could adversely impact their own revenues and business models. They are still trying to make conciliatory moves to keep the governments in good humor. On the other hand, realizing their importance, the governments also do not want to rub the social media giants the wrong way, anywhere.

That is why, under political pressure to strike a deal with Facebook, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg tweeted he had a “constructive discussion” with FB’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

According to Easton, FB argued to Australian officials that “the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favor of the publishers,” and generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for the media organizations in the country.

“We’ve long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organizations,” he said.

“Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead, it seeks to penalize Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.”

Australia’s competition watchdog has maintained that for every $100 spent on online advertising, Google captures $53, Facebook takes $28 and the rest is shared among others, depriving media outlets of revenue needed to support journalism.

 

 

 

 

 

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