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23 February 2021updated 01 Jul 2021 12:14pm

After U-turning in Australia, Facebook faces bigger battles elsewhere

The social network has won concessions in its fight with the Australian government. But across the world politicians’ frustrations with the company have intensified.

By Oscar Williams

Facebook’s fight with the Australian government has followed a familiar course. Struggling to compete with the tech giants in the realm of online advertising, the old media guard successfully lobbied for new legislation mandating that Big Tech reimburses it for the engagement and traffic its journalism generates on their platforms. In response, the tech giants threatened to remove certain services from the jurisdiction. In Facebook’s case, executives followed through on that threat  and then they U-turned.

What distinguishes this battle from earlier ones is the speed at which the process played out. When the Spanish government introduced similar legislation in 2014, Google withdrew its Google News service from the country. Nearly seven years passed between that move and the potential U-turn that emerged on Monday 22 February. Facebook, meanwhile, has reversed its position in less than seven days.

It’s no surprise that the firm has moved quickly. Facebook’s decision generated a ferocious backlash last week as it became clear that the company, which has long championed free speech arguments when faced with other forms of regulation, was now removing access to news in a global health crisis. And it wasn’t just news from media companies that Facebook purged from its platform; it also initially prevented access to the government health department and emergency services.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, the former CEO of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, Stephen Scheeler, said the company had “blinked” first. He has previously argued that the decision to “[turn] off the news, overnight, to millions of people as a bargaining chip in a commercial dispute is a truly shameless demonstration of corporate might”.

“This is Facebook intentionally pulling one of the huge levers of power it has developed to deliberately influence the way free information functions and flows in a sovereign democracy,” Scheeler wrote in a column for the Sydney Morning Herald, which is owned by one of the publishers involved in the dispute. “No longer can it say: ‘Bad things are happening because we didn’t know.’ Facebook must now concede: ‘Bad things are happening because we’re making them happen.’”

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Following Facebook’s withdrawal of news from the market, the Australian government has made several amendments to its bill. Under the terms of the revised legislation, the company will be encouraged to reach a voluntary agreement on content licensing deals with publishers, as Google already has. If an agreement can’t be reached, the case will go to arbitration, but Facebook has said it will reserve the right to remove news content. “Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation,” Facebook’s vice-president of global news partnerships Campbell Brown said in a statement today.

Facebook isn’t alone in expressing concerns about the legislation, which, as the economist Sam Bowman wrote in the New Statesman last week, may be dubious on competition grounds. But by withdrawing news from the Australian market at this particular point in history, Facebook has antagonised politicians across the world who may feel vindicated in their efforts to rein in the company.

Facebook’s greatest fear is not a country of Australia’s size imposing such rules, but a much larger territory doing so. And the most imminent threat isn’t from the US, where the debate over tech regulation has been politicised, but from the European Union. The European Commission has already demonstrated its frustration with US tech firms that seek to circumvent its laws. By attempting to bully its way to victory in Australia, Facebook has likely made life harder for its lawyers and lobbyists everywhere else.

[See also: Why debates about banning online anonymity miss the point]

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