In light of the Australian government’s recent deal with Facebook executives, The Michigan Daily spoke to professors at the University of Michigan about the implications of a Facebook news ban in Australia.
The deal, struck last Tuesday, allowed Facebook to have more time to negotiate deals with publishers, and Facebook said it would restore news content on Facebook to Australian users. The deal came after Facebook blocked all news content for Australian users and content from Australian news agencies two weeks ago in response to Australia’s House of Representatives approving legislation that would force Facebook and Google to pay publishers for news it shows on their platforms.
Cliff Lampe, School of Information professor said users in Australia see a big difference in their Facebook feeds compared to users in other countries.
“News stories will get blocked and media sources won’t be able to share those stories,” Lampe said. “It’d be quite a lot different from what most people experience globally.”
While the ban was in place, media organizations were not the only sites blocked by Facebook; various emergency government agencies and their pages were also made unavailable through the ban. The decision to block government-related pages raised concern among Australian politicians as citizens tried to stay updated on the pandemic and weather developments.
According to a mid-February NPR story, Facebook put out a statement saying it would reverse blocks on government-related pages and other pages that were unintentionally impacted due to the news ban. They have since done this.
Facebook and Google were the main internet platforms singled out in the Australian legislation, but Google did not pull its news content in Australia as Facebook did. In January, Google had threatened to remove the search function in Australia if the Australian government went ahead with the proposed legislation. This threat never materialized, and Google began to make deals with Australian publishers as the legislation was debated.
Professor Paul Resnick, associate dean for research and faculty affairs and professor at the Information School, suggested that public image may have played a role in the decisions of the two companies.
“Google looked reasonable and Facebook looked very aggressive,” Resnick said. “One thing that went into it was whether the company wanted to call attention to itself as a big player. Both are big players, but Facebook, by fighting harder, drew all the attention to itself.”
Josh Pasek, associate professor of communications and media and political science, pointed out that both Google and Facebook tried to prevent the new regulations.
“This was Facebook’s attempt to push back against the Australian law,” Pasek said. “Facebook’s decision to stop transmitting news was the easiest way to deal with it.”
Lampe highlighted how often Facebook cooperates with other countries on their regulations, saying they were likely surprised by the amount of attention the news ban received.
“Usually when (Facebook) make a change at that level for any individual country, it goes unnoticed internationally,” Lampe said. “I think they were surprised by the amount of attention and outcry this got.”
Pasek said he sees the recent reversal between Facebook and the Australian government as an agreement between Facebook’s regional executives and Australian government officials. The publishers and media outlets will be compensated by Facebook for the social media platform’s use of their content, and Facebook now has more time to negotiate these deals with publishers.
But for all the threats and high-stakes negotiation, Lampe said he isn’t confident this regulation will actually give more money to journalists and translate into more power over big social media platforms because social media platforms have so much collective power globally.
“It would be lovely if it could,” Lampe said. “At the end of the day it’s really hard to control information flows.”
Resnick said the U.S. takes a different approach to regulating big tech. He said that if any legislation were to be made in regard to social media companies in the U.S., historical precedent suggests it would be antitrust regulation.
“I would be surprised, even with the rhetoric about reining in the tech industry,” Resnick said.
A congressional hearing in July of 2020 showcased members of Congress berating the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook and Google, but no definitive action has followed.
Lampe agreed with Resnick that other types of legislation would be more effective for journalism in particular.
“I think this legislation was the wrong way to go to achieve the outcome,” Lampe said. “But I totally agree with the goal here, which is to protect professional information reporters.”
Pasek argued that the role of information is an important aspect of democracy.
“There’s a unique and important role in society for quality information just because of its democratic importance,” Pasek said. “Governments have a pretty direct interest in getting involved because it’s hard to imagine a completely uninformed citizenry, who doesn’t get good information, making reasonable decisions.”
Going forward, Resnick said Facebook may be trying to move in a different direction. He talked about recent changes to Facebook’s algorithm in several countries, including soon the U.S., to decrease the amount of political news in a user’s feed.
“I think, in part, it’s in response to their inability to come up with a good path forward for distinguishing information from high quality news,” Resnick said. “I would think about it in that context, and are they really trying to explore becoming a platform that has more social and less media.”
Pasek said in the contemporary era, newsmaking is increasingly becoming something that needs to turn a profit.
“Facebook doesn’t want to see themselves as having (journalistic) duties,” Pasek said. “They want to see themselves as a company, and their goal is to make money. They want to pay out as little as possible to their providers.”
Pasek said Facebook will constantly try to get ahead of regulations.
“(Facebook is) going to be working to make sure that they’re not going to be heavily regulated,” Pasek said.
Daily News Contributor Teagan Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.