A New-Media Showdown in Australia

A New-Media Showdown in Australia
Carlos Jasso/Reuters

In the face-off this week between the news media and social media in Australia, I think I am on Rupert Murdoch’s side for once. Unless I am on Mark Zuckerberg’s.

It is an awful choice. Do I root for the wizened media titan who controls News Corp and his longtime efforts to wrest power from the tech giants that have made mincemeat of the journalism economy?

Or do I stand with the King of Facebook and the bedrock internet principle that sharing hyperlinks should be free and open, even though Mr. Zuckerberg’s creation has become the prime distributor of lies and hate speech, threatening to swamp us all?

A clash became inevitable as the Australian government has come closer to passing a bill establishing a “news media bargaining code,” which would require tech companies to pay for news that appears on their platforms. The legislation is likely to be passed in the next two weeks.

The tech reporter Casey Newton wrote, correctly, on his newsletter Platformer that the proposal is a “shakedown” and highly favorable to publishers like Mr. Murdoch. Unless individual deals are struck, digital platforms and news organizations will have to enter a binding arbitration process tilted in the journalists’ favor.

Google got ahead of the storm by signing agreements with Australia’s three biggest publishers, including one with News Corp that also involved other countries, to pay to have those media companies’ content appear in its News Showcase product.

Google wanted to avoid having its highly lucrative search business hampered by the new news-payment system, a scenario that would have cost Google and also would have hurt the media companies given the benefits they reap from being discovered online. This was a smart move for Google, which had already committed $1 billion to making such deals.

But Facebook has a different business model. Links to journalism make up only a tiny sliver of the posts on Facebook, making them inconsequential for its bottom line. Facebook has paid some news publishers to appear in its News Tab, but the Australian requirement appears to be a bridge too far.

So, Facebook made a stunning push away from the bargaining table and told the Aussies to get stuffed, as the locals might say. It decided to remove all news links from the platform there.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” said William Easton, Facebook’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand. He added that over the last year it sent five billion clicks to Australia’s news outlets, earning them some $316 million.

“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,” he added. “We are choosing the latter.”

That means no Australian news organizations will be linked to on Facebook anywhere. While cat videos are still A-OK, Facebook’s first stab at blocking news cloddishly dragged in some pandemic information sites and emergency-related content, which caused great consternation there and across the globe.

As Mr. Newton, the tech reporter, noted, “Rather than building a blacklist of news sites to restrict, Facebook tried using its machine learning systems to identify news publishers, and the systems went predictably haywire. There were reports that government and emergency pages, nonprofit groups, and the Bureau of Meteorology could no longer share. Given how long the possibility of restricting links has loomed, you’d think Facebook would have better prepared for it to arrive.”

You’d think — but no. The idea of Facebook shutting off news on its site in Australia was quickly met with loud complaints of censorship and unfettered monopoly power.

It is no such thing. If Facebook does not want to pay for news links, and the links are not core to its business, it should not have to.

I made a similar point weeks ago when Amazon decided to stop allowing the Parler social media network to use its cloud services after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Parler and others called foul, but no company has to make an economic deal it doesn’t want to make. No media company has a right to operate on a particular platform.

But the move by Facebook in Australia was also ham-handed. It felt vaguely scary and played right into the hands of those who want to rein the company in for more legitimate reasons, including its sloppy handling of disinformation and its quashing of innovators.

It was open season on Facebook before, and now it’s going to get worse, especially since many other jurisdictions, like Canada and the European Union, are eyeing similar rules to Australia’s.

With that outlook, you’d think Facebook would be more careful, given how persistently malevolent Mr. Murdoch has been in attacking tech, painting Silicon Valley as a group of information thieves who are a danger to society.

That’s ironic, of course, given that News Corp has unleashed more toxic media on the world than seems possible for a single company. And now, Facebook just handed an unscrupulous man who has major sway over politics in Australia — and in the United States — a potent public relations weapon.

I don’t feel sorry for Mr. Zuckerberg. And it is likely that Facebook will weather the bad press and return to the bargaining table.

But Mr. Zuckerberg should pay close attention to the level of ire his company is receiving after making a legitimate decision. This is an ugly preview of the kind of opprobrium Facebook will continue to face when it is under scrutiny for the things it actually does wrong. Which is to say, no one really likes or trusts Facebook, or its executives, especially Mr. Zuckerberg. While that might be unfair at times, not being likable will continue to have a steep price.

Perhaps even more problematic is the nature of Australia’s proposal. Creating a protection racket for legacy media companies does nothing innovative to help journalism’s weakened financial ecosystem, brought on in part by the rise of the internet giants.

While no one likes the idea of painting the fences at Google or Facebook without pay, Australia’s proposal does not help create sustainable business models for journalism.

Like I said, choosing between Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Zuckerberg is awful. It totally ignores the real issue of how to get more money in the hands of journalists. And while the moguls battle, reporting suffers.

Kara Swisher is the host of Sway, an Opinion podcast, and a contributing writer. She has reported on technology and technology companies since the early days of the internet.

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