Peace in our time - Australia crumples before Facebook like a discarded lager can

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan February 23, 2021
Australia's five day war with Facebook is over, but who blinked first? And can there really be a lasting peace between the social media giant and government around the world?

Peace in our time
(Neville Chamberlain via YouTube)

Facebook has re-friended Australia.

Well, that didn’t take long, did it? Five days ago Facebook went to war with Australia, shutting off access to news - and socially-vital information sources - rather than pay up for content, while the government Down Under declared it was taking a principled stand with new legislation and leading the world against the social media behemoth’s avaricious stance.

And now that’s all turned into capitulation, a truce has been forged and the posturing is well underway on both sides as to who blinked first.

For the Australian government, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says that it has put Facebook into the position of having to negotiate with media outlets and publishers to agree payment deals. As such, Australia’s work here is done. He’s basing this on what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally told him were “pretty well advanced” talks, apparently:

Importantly, the amendments [to the planned legislation] will strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers in obtaining appropriate remuneration for the use of their content by the digital platforms.

For its part, Facebook can point to eleventh hour modifications that the Australian government introduced to its own bill, the News Media Bargaining Code. These include:

  • Deciding that a move to designate a social media/content platform must take into account whether that platform has made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with news media businesses.
  • Platform providers will be notified of the government’s intention to designate prior to any final decision, with a final decision on whether or not to designate made no sooner than one month from the date of notification.
  • Planned non-differentiation provisions will not be triggered because commercial agreements resulted in different remuneration amounts or commercial outcomes that arose in the course of usual business practices.
  • Final offer arbitration will act as a last resort where commercial deals cannot be reached if mediation cannot succeed within two months.

Blink, blink, blink, blinkity-blink!

That was enough eyelid action for Facebook Australia’s Managing Director Will Easton to declare:

After further discussions, we are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognise the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”

But just in case anyone thinks Facebook has backed down, the firm’s Global VP for Partnerships, Campbell Brown, has been quick to add that the firm will be able to pull news from Australian users any time it feels the need to do so in the future:

Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.

My take

So it is to be peace in our time.

Frydenberg decided to take credit for Australia here. Declaring that his government had engaged in a “proxy battle” for the rest of the world and backed the US firm into a corner:

I have no doubt that so many other countries are looking at what is happening here in Australia, because of this innovative code the Morrison government is now pursuing…Facebook and Google have not hidden the fact that they know that the eyes of the world are on Australia and that is why they have sought to get a code here that is workable.

But the prospect of world war on Facebook that seemed so strong a few days ago now seems like a distant memory. Just last week Canada’s Culture Minister Steven Guilbeault was rallying the allied forces around the globe against a common aggressor and its “totally unsustainable” approach to world domination:

We are really among the first group of countries around the world that are doing this. I suspect that soon we will have five, ten, 15 countries adopting similar rules. Is Facebook going to cut ties with Germany, with France?

The answer is, it probably won’t have to, not if international political spines are as pliable as they appear to be.

With grim inevitability the UK’s former Secretary of State for Digital, Commerce, Media and Sport, the never-knowingly-undersold Matt Hancock, had to let the world know that he has “very strong views on this”.

Facebook won’t be too bothered by that, assuming they’re as strong as his previous macho declarations that he was the very man to legislate and rein in Facebook, declarations that collapsed without trace when Zuckerberg threatened to pull investment in Brexit Britain, leaving Hancock to waffle on about “proportionate and innovation-friendly” collaboration with the advancing social media empire.

The reality here I suspect is that Facebook has engaged in a test of strength skirmish with government around an issue of global concern, but done so in an area of the world where the stakes wouldn’t be too high, whatever the outcome. It’s now had the chance to demonstrate to other regimes, including the domestic US political establishment, that it’s prepared to take tough action and ride out the flak when it feels threatened.

Will that be an end to the matter? Of course not. Will there be future conflict? Of course there will and on a bigger stage with grander consequences at stake. Australia’s iron resolve turned out to have all the consistency of a crushed lager tinnie. Someone else will have to lead the charge and probably on different fronts, such as Italy's €7 million fine against the company over data protection. 

Meanwhile British politician Julian Knight, Chairman of the UK Government’s Culture Committee, sums up where we are following the deal between Australia and Facebook:

It leaves more questions than answers…it doesn’t take away from the fact that Facebook has behaved very poorly. Unfriending an entire continent is clearly unacceptable. I hope that Facebook gets that message loud and clear. It has a long way to go to restore an increasingly tarnished reputation.