Many people are rightly asking: what on Earth was all that about?
When Facebook kicked off the Five Day War with Australia last week, diginomica questioned how the firm would justify cutting off news access to an entire democratic country, suggesting it looked like “a PR challenge too far, one that Apologist-in-Chief Nick Clegg will struggle to spin.”
The war is now over, courtesy of Austalian politicians talking tough about new global-leading legislation, but collapsing into compromise after getting into a ruck with Mark Zuckerberg. But Clegg wants to have his say, hence the rhetorical question above.
So what’s the party line going to be? It seems that Facebook was perhaps the teeniest, weeniest bit guilty of getting carried away and might just have “erred on the side of over-enforcement” by closing off access to vital content resources, such as that provided by health authorities during a global pandemic, and the home pages of democratically-elected Australia politicians.
But look, be fair, it’s an easy mistake to make. Who among us hasn’t hit the wrong button in a bad mood and deliberately plunged an entire sovereign country into a news blackout in order to make a point, challenge the will of an elected government and get our own way? Happens all the time in Moscow and Beijing, so let’s not all start pointing fingers at the Zucker-verse as though this is something new!
Anyway, lectures Clegg, his one stab at humble pseudo-culpability seemingly exhausted, the Aussies have no-one but themselves to blame. The Facebook empire has been warning them what would happen if they put their silly old law in place to rob Zuck and Co of much-needed cash. (Do you know how hard it is to get by on $70.7 billion a year? No-one needs politicians nicking your paper round money as well!):
We understand the decision to stop the sharing of news in Australia appeared to come out of nowhere. Far from being out of the blue, Facebook indicated that it might be forced into this position six months ago.
Yeah, you were told, Australia, but you just wouldn’t listen! This is what happens if you don’t pay attention to edicts from the Imperium. (PS: other governments please take note - when the Dear Leader tries to friend you and wants a word with you about how you’re running your country, clear your diaries and start taking notes!).
Not only would the Antipodeans not listen to warnings, they also don’t understand what they’re doing anyway, so really Facebook has been forced to educate them. As Cleggy puts it:
We’ve been in discussions with the Australian government for three years trying to explain why this proposed law, unamended, was unworkable. At the heart of it…is a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between Facebook and news publishers.
Our hands are clean, he goes on. In fact, it was Facebook that was really being robbed here, not the publishing industry or content creators:
The assertions — repeated widely in recent days — that Facebook steals or takes original journalism for its own benefit always were and remain false. We neither take nor ask for the content for which we were being asked to pay a potentially exorbitant price.
So, buck up your ideas!
As for publishers, they need to buck their ideas up quite frankly and realise that they’re not the big ‘I am’ they think they are. Clegg makes clear the New World Order:
The internet has been disruptive for the news industry….When ads started moving from print to digital, the economics of news changed…It is understandable that some media conglomerates see Facebook as a potential source of money to make up for their losses, but does that mean they should be able to demand a blank check?
And that’s what Australia was demanding from poor old Facebook - “to pay potentially unlimited amounts of money to multi-national media conglomerates” - and why there was a need to put it back in its box:
It’s like forcing car makers to fund radio stations because people might listen to them in the car — and letting the stations set the price.
In fact, says Clegg, all this outrage is really the most enormous hypocrisy:
It is ironic that some of the biggest publishers that have long advocated for free markets and voluntary commercial undertakings now appear to be in favor of state sponsored price setting. The events in Australia show the danger of camouflaging a bid for cash subsidies behind distortions about how the internet works.
Clegg has a point here. Hypocrisy sucks. It’s akin to the leader of a British political party fighting an election on a commitment to oppose any increase in tuition fees for university students and to promise to fight to abolish them, only to then support hefty rises in said fees once he’s in office as Deputy Prime Minister. That’s the kind of 'flexibility' that leads to politicians being kicked out by their constituents at the next opportunity and being forced to go to work as the head of Facebook’s Ministry of Truth just so they can scrape by on a basic of $656k a year in California.
In other words, pay close attention here to what the nice man from Facebook is telling us and you might learn something. When Nick’s talking about hypocrisy, I personally get a real sense that I’m listening to someone who really understands what he’s talking about.
Anyway, lecture over! But as The Gospel According To Zuck winds to the end of another verse, there’s one last attempt at chucking a concession out there - “There are legitimate concerns to be addressed about the size and power of tech companies” - but one immediately tempered by a caution from the firm that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission reckons rakes in $6 billion a year from advertising Down Under:
New rules only work if they benefit more people, not protect the interests of a few.
Yeah, you tell 'em! As the old (and much-regretted) UK political cliché briefly once went...I agree with Nick!
I’m in the UK. I’m well used to being patronised by Nick Clegg.
To our non-UK readers…welcome to my world!