Australia is mobilising support in its fight against Facebook and Morrison’s recent discussion with PM Modi is proof of that.(File photo)
Australia is mobilising support in its fight against Facebook and Morrison’s recent discussion with PM Modi is proof of that.(File photo)

Facebook controversy: What prompted Australia PM to reach out to PM Modi? All you need to know

The discussion was held in the aftermath of Facebook’s decision to restrict publishers and people of Australia from sharing or viewing news content on its platform.
Written by Kunal Gaurav, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 19, 2021 06:39 PM IST

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday said that he discussed the progress of the “media platform bill” with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during a telephonic conversation a day before. The discussion was held in the aftermath of Facebook’s decision to restrict publishers and people of Australia from sharing or viewing news content on its platform.

The contentious legislation, titled News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, aims to make two Big Techs - Google and Facebook - pay content publishers for sharing news on their platforms. While announcing the decision on Wednesday, Facebook said that the bill, already passed by the lower house of parliament, “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.”

“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,” William Easton, managing director, Facebook Australia & New Zealand, said in a blog post.

What's the rationale behind the code?

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which drafted the code, had identified a bargaining power imbalance between digital platforms and Australian news businesses. The competition watchdog had said in a report that organisations like Google and Facebook are more than mere distributors or pure intermediaries in the supply of news in Australia. According to the chair of the ACCC, the bill would even out the bargaining power imbalance so that fair commercial deals can be made.

Read | Facebook’s Australia face-off could backfire across the globe

Here’s are some of the key elements of the code:

The news media bargaining code will create a framework for registered news media corporations and digital platforms to negotiate for financial remuneration for the use and/or reproduction of news content.

Digital platform corporations like Google and Facebook will have to provide the news business corporations with a range of information, including advance notification of planned changes to an algorithm that will have a significant effect on referral traffic to covered news content.

The law would force the two Big Techs to enter mandatory arbitration with media outlets if they fail to reach an agreement over the value of the news content within three months. The arbiter will take the final call between the payment proposal put forward by both parties.

The tech giants may make standard offers to news businesses, particularly smaller ones, to reduce the time and cost associated with negotiations.

How Google and Facebook reacted?

Google argued that the “baseball arbitration model” incentivises publishers to make ambit claims and resort to arbitration rather than good-faith negotiations. It had even threatened to pull its search engine from Australia if the government forces it to pay media outlets for their news content. However, the company has reluctantly struck deals with media companies, including NewsCorp, to pay for journalism.

On the other hand, Facebook has decided to take the issue head-on by not caving, for the time being, to the government’s pressure. Easton said that platforms have fundamentally different relationships with news content, highlighting that Google Search is “inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content.” He argued that publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook which allows them to “sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue.”

“For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal. News makes up less than 4% of the content people see in their News Feed,” he added.

What’s next?

Beginning Monday, the legislation will be debated in the Senate which is expected to adopt the law by the end of the week. Australia is mobilising support in its fight against Facebook and Morrison’s recent discussions with PM Modi, Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and UK’s Boris Johnson is proof of that. Morrison told reporters on Friday that “people are looking at what Australia is doing” and “they’re already going down this path,” indicating wider support on the issue.

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