Why Facebook decided to kill the news
If you're an Australian Facebook user, forget about posting news. You're no longer allowed. No news for you!
Sometimes in this war of misinformation there are tiny wins. Earlier this week, Instagram finally decided to boot Covid-denier and QAnon enthusiast Pete Evans off their platform.
Seems good, right?
Well, if you’re in Australia and tried to post that news on your Facebook wall — you wouldn’t be allowed. Because Australian Facebook users have now been blocked from sharing links to legitimate news sites.
It’s utterly fucked up, and today Dylan Reeve explains what the hell is going on.
Things falling apart.
It was mid-morning Thursday in Australia when it all started to fall apart. Facebook started to seem a little off. Posts were disappearing, links were being removed, and news organisations that wanted to share stories about what was happening found they could no longer post on the platform. Their pages had been stripped bare.
Facebook had killed Australian News on their platform. You couldn’t post news links on your timeline anymore, or link to a news story in your comments on other people’s posts.
If it was news and ended in “.au” — it was no longer allowed on Facebook.
Facebook’s drastic action, it explained in a press release, was in response to the proposed Media Bargaining law. According to the Australian government the law is intended to “address bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms, specifically Google and Facebook” — but Facebook argues that the law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.”
The action that Facebook took was extreme, and potentially very harmful.
As David noted in a tweet, Australians could now find their Facebook feeds “filled with nothing but dangerous misinformation and disinformation” as the void created by the loss of real news would be filled instead with unregulated content from dubious sources.
There were more immediate and direct risks too, as outlined by tech analyst Ariel Bogle on Twitter where she noted that the ban meant “ABC Broken Hill can’t post an article about where to get the covid vaccine on Facebook” and “ABC South West can’t livestream the bushfire conference.”
As we all know Facebook is evil, so it’s easy to assume they were being evil here. But were they?
Unfortunately, probably not.
Who’s to blame?
Their actions are very extreme, and arguably premature (the law isn’t a law yet) but their position is, quite possibly, right. And the timing is clearly intended to influence the passage of the bill into law.
While platforms like Google often excerpt and summarise the content of the news sites they index, effectively taking the content from those sites and making use of it themselves, that’s not what Facebook does. Facebook as a platform only provides a link to the content. It isn’t extracting the text of these news articles and re-publishing it, it’s just providing a link that you click which takes you to the story.
Hyperlinking is the absolute foundation of the World Wide Web. While it’s hard to remember now (and many people never experienced it at all) the original web was just an endless series of pages linking to one another. The once-giant Yahoo! got its start on the internet by being a portal to the early web. Before search engines were really a thing there were sites like Yahoo! that were just a categorised collection of links to other websites.
However according to the Australian law, platforms like Facebook wouldn’t just need to pay to post actual copies of news content, but also to simply link to the website where it’s hosted.
For now the platforms impacted by the law are massive multinational corporations with seemingly infinite pockets, but will that remain the case? Could it soon be illegal for me to post a link to The Sydney Morning Herald here without paying them?
At this stage I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Facebook.
Their actions are harmful and reckless, but they are a direct response to a badly considered and potentially destructive law on the verge of being passed by the Australian Government.
In saying that, there are some ways in which — no matter what their justification — Facebook has very dramatically messed up in the actions they’ve decided to take, most notably in not having a plan in place to rapidly correct obvious errors in classification. Because now, no matter how good their arguments, we are faced with dozens of examples of vital non-news related content having been sink-holed.
Like… really vital stuff.
Now it’s a matter of waiting to see who needs who the most. Do Australian news organisations need the traffic generated by Facebook links more than Facebook needs to be able to let users link to news organisations?
My bet is that the news organisations are going to feel the squeeze on this before Facebook does.
PS: If you want to share this Webworm, it’s webworm.co/p/newsban.
So yeah — Australian lawmakers and Facebook have really fucked this one up.
Australian Facebook is going to a littered with the type of health misinformation Instagram kicked Pete Evans off for. And the kicker — Facebook owns fucking Instagram. Ughhh.
It’s really important in a democracy that news is shared openly online. Look, there’s a reason the military switched Myanmar’s internet off after arresting their democratically elected leader. And as the world gets increasingly complex and terrifying, it’s vital news is shared as openly and widely as possible. Especially during a pandemic!
And sure — Facebook isn’t the internet — but the fact is it’s where billions of people spend a great deal of their internet lives. Including Australians.
Today, the trickle down effect is everywhere. A guy in Brisbane just sent me this.
Face palm, indeed.
PS This is all so depressing. Have a kitten. He isn’t mine, but I visit him often. His name is Napoleon, and he likes sleeping on your neck. I think he’s more of a Sebastian to be honest, but he’s not my cat so I don’t make the rules.
Thanks Dylan for writing something which at least attempts to outline Facebook’s side of the story here - which is a contrast to most major news organisations, especially Australian ones, which stand to benefit hugely should this code enter into law in its current form.
There was one thing you did get wrong in this post though, which is that Facebook does take excerpts from links that it’s users post. Here’s an example https://imgur.com/uR83C1m . (thankfully webworm or substack won’t have to pay imgur an unknown amount for me linking this image). The user didn’t upload this image, the headline, and an excerpt from the article. Facebook did scrape it. This is what the news organisations, and the Australian government think is losing them money. They think most people don’t click the link, they just read the scraped information and move on with their life - only having looked at Facebook’s ads - not the news organisation’s - and therefore Facebook is wholly profiting off the content it has “stolen” from news organisations. This is a fair argument. However as you correctly pointed out, the law includes only having the link to the content as a way it “makes news content available”. Which is where the law gets ridiculous and Facebook rightly disagrees.
This is just problem number one in this proposed law. It also starts opening some more uncomfortable areas where Facebook is now responsible for the content it’s users post. For example - if webworm were australian and makes more than $150,000 per year, it could be eligible to become a registered news organisation under this law. So if I now wanted to share a link to one of these posts to my friends on Facebook, Facebook would have to pay webworm a flat amount for the ability for it’s users to post your links. It gets weirder when you consider if webworm itself had a Facebook page and posted it’s own links, Facebook would still have to pay webworm the flat amount.
Another point you didn’t address is why Facebook inadvertently removed posts on “necessary” pages such as health departments and local fire services. Facebook says this is because under the new law (and if they didn’t want to comply) they would have to remove everything which the law considers news. The definition of news under this law is here https://imgur.com/NMvewNQ and it is incredibly broad and vague. So Facebook has come up with some algorithm which removes all posts which contain news as defined by this law. They obviously made some mistakes here, and have all but admitted to this by reinstating government Facebook pages etc. that were initially wiped.
The law also leaves two major powers up to the Australian government. Who this law actually applies to can be decided wholly by the Treasurer of Australia under only these incredibly broad guidelines https://imgur.com/7RSqXDJ . It isn’t metric based or rules based. What happens when a new Treasurer comes along who has a dislike of Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, or Youtube whos users all partake in the same practice of linking content as Facebook’s and Google Search’s. The Australian Communications and Media Authority would also have the power of deciding who’s going to get paid by Facebook and who isn’t - quite a large step towards some state controlled media - and conveniently for the ACMA they have plenty of ground to reject news organisations from becoming registered. The news organisation has to pass four “tests” to become registered. https://imgur.com/a/b0ajosh . This also causes a huge imbalance in the law. For large news organisations - think News Corp who seem to conveniently be this law's number one fan - this isn’t too much of a hurdle. However it gives a disadvantage to smaller publications which might not strictly reach the standards set by this law. It will become a lot harder to compete when your competitors are getting huge lump sums from Facebook just for the ability for their content to be shared.
There is also another section of this law which gives registered news organisations an advantage. The law requires that platforms inform registered news organisations whenever they make a “significant” change to their discovery/ranking/curation algorithm 14 days in advance. The relevant section is here https://imgur.com/pna7SfA .The law applies to any "alterations to the ways in which a service distributes content". The law never actually defines what this means, but it gives a bunch of examples that go beyond ranking. For example, anything that affects a particular "class of content", such as deciding whether or not to make all videos auto-play, is an alteration. Basically, this law would prevent Facebook from deploying just about any non-trivial change to its product without first doing a detailed analysis of how it would affect the Australian news business, in order to determine whether a notification is required.
Lastly, Facebook and Google have a problem with how they would be forced into a commercial agreement with every registered news organisation that the ACMA lets in. The two parties are initially allowed to negotiate freely but if no agreement is reached the ACMA appoints an arbiter whose job is to take the two final offers from both the companies and decide which is more fair and then that final offer is legally binding - no negotiating of the final offer. This may seem extreme but the Australian government itself says this will be the case in 75% of the agreements.
Lastly, Facebook and Google aren’t making a fuss about all this just because they don’t want to pay news organisations. In fact, even without this law, both companies have entered into commercial agreements with news companies to pay for their content. Google has even been doing this in Australia already https://blog.google/products/news/google-news-showcase-launches-australia/ - and Facebook was ready to follow suit with Facebook News as they have already done in the US and UK https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/26/facebook-starts-rolling-out-facebook-news-to-uk-users.html . Oh and if Facebook or Google are found in breach of this new law the penalty is in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars per infringement - slightly more than the usual slap on the wrist Facebook is used to.
Sorry this turned out to be so long.
Stop. Using. Facebook. My wife has been having a Facebook free February and she’s less anxious and getting a lot more done. As for publishers, get substack or Wordpress. Take control of your content.