Facebook denies bullying Australia as it plans to launch news service by year-end

The social media giant refused the characterisation that it intimidated the Australian government into modifying the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.

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Facebook has told a Senate committee its focus in Australia is now on concluding deals with local news outlets and launching initiatives to support smaller, more regional publishers following the passage of the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.

"We certainly understand that it's a clear signal from the government and the Parliament that there is a strong desire for digital platforms such as ours to invest in the market," Facebook's director of policy for Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands Mia Garlick said.

"We have been doing that for a number of years, and that's what we're very much focused on right now. We have two goals at present: One is to conclude deals that will allow us to bring Facebook News to Australia in the latter half of this year, and the second is to make sure that we are launching initiatives that can support smaller regional and public interest publishers."

Locally, Facebook has concluded either letters of intent or long-form agreements with at least six publishers and Garlick said her company is in active conversations with a number of other publishers, while also looking at what else it can do to support smaller regional and public interest publishers.

"Historically, we've paid tens of millions of dollars to publishers, and these deals that we're concluding at present are three-year deals so that we can be committed to our investment for a short to medium term, to make sure that we are contributing to the Australian news ecosystem," she said, following a claim of commercial in confidence around the value of the deals struck.

The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee was probing media diversity in Australia, but Facebook representatives were once again asked about their company's decision to block news on its platform.

Facebook pulled news from its platform as the culmination of a lengthy stoush with the Australian government alongside Google. Facebook had actually warned it might pull news from its platform six months prior and Google threatened to remove its search engine in Australia back in January.

News was restored as the code, with amendments, was passed.

Read more: Australia's news media bargaining code is a form of ransomware, and someone paid up

Senators were labelling the move as "bullying" or one of intimidation, but Garlick, alongside Facebook's APAC VP of policy Simon Milner rejected such characterisation.

"I think the concerns that we've had about the legislation are that it wasn't fairly describing or reflecting the value exchange between ourselves and publishers," Garlick said.

Milner reiterated Facebook's position that it's incorrect to say a significant number of people on Facebook use the service to look for news or to consume news.

"Only around 4% of the content in people's news feeds -- maybe it being called a news feed suggests it's full of news. It's not. It's predominantly content that comes from friends, family, causes, organisations, small businesses, and all kinds of other places that the stories in your news feed come from. A very small proportion is from news," he added.

Asked why, if that was the case, that Facebook was paying tens of millions of dollars to news publications, Milner said it is not paying money for news feed content, but rather, it is doing so to launch Facebook News, which is its new product aimed at aggregating news.

"The actions we took in response to the legislation which passed the House were in order to limit what we saw as uncapped, unknowable liabilities for our company, because of the way that that legislation was framed at the time," Milner continued, saying it "certainly" wasn't to intimidate the government.

"Our understanding at the time was that this legislation which had passed the House was not going to be changed. Therefore we did not expect what happened in the following few days, when the government said to us, 'Oh, well, let's look at this and see if there are some things we can do with this legislation to address your concerns.' We did not expect that."

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Garlick, however, extended an apology to smaller publishers and emergency services pages that were affected by the ban-hammer.

"Something we did try to raise during our consultations on the law was the impact on smaller publishers. First of all, there is a very broad definition of what is news content under the legislation. Secondly, there's a nondifferentiation clause that essentially says 'one out, all out'," Garlick said.

"There were certainly errors in our enforcement, for which we're truly sorry. We worked really swiftly, particularly with a lot of the emergency service stakeholders that we have longstanding relationships with, to restore their pages as soon as we could.

Garlick said the intention is to bring Facebook News to Australia by the end of 2021.

"Despite our limited role in the news ecosystem and our limited broader role in the megatrends that have caused challenges to journalism, we have been working to deliver value to Australian publishers and making investments in the Australian news ecosystem for many years," she said.

"We do this because we understand the importance of news in society, although we cannot do this on completely uneconomic terms that misunderstand the nature of the value exchange between Facebook and publishers."

Also facing the committee was former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who said news organisations such as News Corp pressured the government to then pressure Facebook and Google to hand over large amounts of money.

"The power of you, that you represent, your parliament, our parliament, has been used to shakedown two big tech platforms, Google and Facebook, to give money to media companies, the leading protagonist of which was News Corp," he said.

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