Facebook is wrong and pulling news is unnecessary, claims Australian Treasurer

Meanwhile, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher is concerned the 'North Shore Mums' page is unnecessary collateral in Facebook's ban.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

According to Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Facebook is wrong for blocking Australians from viewing news on its platform.

"In respect to Facebook's actions today, Facebook was wrong. Facebook's actions were unnecessary. They were heavy-handed and they will damage its reputation here in Australia," he said during a press conference.

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On Thursday morning, Facebook made good on a threat made months ago to restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content in response to the impending legislation of a News Media Bargaining Code.

The bargaining code, according to the government, is necessary for addressing the fundamental bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and major digital platforms.

But to Facebook, it ignores the realities of its relationship with publishers and news creators.

"What today's events do confirm for all Australians is the immense market power of these media digital giants … [they] loom very large in our economy and on the digital landscape," Frydenberg claimed.

Asked if he was blindsided by the decision, Frydenberg said "we certainly weren't given any notice by Facebook" despite speaking with its CEO Mark Zuckerberg as recently as Thursday morning.

Joining Frydenberg was Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher, who said the government wants Google and Facebook to stay in Australia, but said "at the same time, if you're doing business in Australia you need to comply with the laws made by the elected Australian parliament".

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Collateral in Facebook's banhammer are some government and community services pages, due to the legislation not providing, in Facebook's eyes, clear guidance on the definition of news content.

The legislation states: Core news content means content that reports, investigates, or explains: a) issues or events that are relevant in engaging Australians in public debate and in informing democratic decision-making; or b) current issues or events of public significance for Australians at a local, regional or national level.

But the ministers rejected this directive as being anything other than clear.

"We don't accept that interpretation of the definition of news -- it's very clear in the legislation it doesn't apply to government information," Frydenberg said.

Fletcher added that the provisions of the code are "very clear."

"The community impact of this is very significant … the fact that there are organisations like state health departments, fire and emergency services, and so on that have had their Facebook pages blocked -- that's a public safety issue," Fletcher said.

"I spoke this morning to the operator of North Shore Mums … and like a number of similar services around Australia, her page, her Facebook page has been blocked.

"That is of significant concern."

While Google also threatened to pull news from Australia, Frydenberg took the opportunity to thank Google for the "very constructive discussions they have been having with stakeholders"

The search giant this week made three public deals with publishers, with Rupert Murdoch unsurprisingly being the latest beneficiary of the federal government's actions. One deal struck earlier this week will see Google pay AU$30 million a year to display links to news articles from another news conglomerate.

"If commercial deals are struck, that changes the equation," the Treasurer said, refusing to answer if Google striking deals would see them no longer under the directive of the code.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese meanwhile took to Twitter to share his anger at Facebook, ignoring the fact his party waved through the legislation in the House.

"During a global pandemic, Australians can't access state health departments on Facebook. On a day of flood and fire warnings in Queensland and WA, Australians can't access the Bureau of Meteorology on Facebook," he tweeted. "The Morrison Government needs to fix this today."


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