After striking a deal with the Australian government, Facebook has penned an extremely salty open letter, offering the ‘real’ version of events.
The fight between Facebook and the Australian government was less a clash of the titans and more a confused, ego-driven spat at a family barbecue, where one uncle turns on the other, neither willing to back down or strike a meaningful blow; as the rest of us watch on, inconvenienced, knowing that we’d have to endure the fallout on the drive home.
John Quiggin, Professor of Economics at The University of Queensland defined the tussle as “Facebook drastically overplaying its hand by banning a vast range of content…and forced to settle for what appear to be cosmetic concessions, such as a two-month period of mediation before disputes are subject to compulsory arbitration. Its apparent decision to capitulate was doubtless assisted by the uniformly hostile international reaction to its bullying tactics.
“The debate in Australia has been much less one-sided. Many commentators view it simply as a dispute between Facebook and News Limited, and take the view that News owner Rupert Murdoch is a greater threat to global democracy than Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg. This view is defensible in general, but in this specific case, it was Zuckerberg who attempted to bludgeon a democratically elected government into submission, while the established media worked through the normal political process.”
So, while news content (and the hideous bipartisan wars of opinion) set to resume on the platform in the coming days, Facebook has released a statement on the agreement, offering their own take on the event, one covered in a thick layer of salt and hubris.
On their website (in a post hyperbolically titled ‘The Real Story of What Happened With News on Facebook in Australia‘), Facebook’s Global VP Nick Clegg writes: “Anyone with a connection can start a website or write a blog post; not everyone can start a newspaper. It is understandable that some media conglomerates see Facebook as a potential source of money to make up for their losses, but does that mean they should be able to demand a blank check?
“That’s what the Australian law, as it was proposed, would have done. Facebook would have been forced to pay potentially unlimited amounts of money to multi-national media conglomerates under an arbitration system that deliberately misdescribes the relationship between publishers and Facebook — without even so much as a guarantee that it is used to pay for journalism, let alone support smaller publishers.
“It’s like forcing carmakers to fund radio stations because people might listen to them in the car — and letting the stations set the price. It is ironic that some of the biggest publishers that have long advocated for free markets and voluntary commercial undertakings now appear to be in favour of state-sponsored price setting. The events in Australia show the danger of camouflaging a bid for cash subsidies behind distortions about how the internet works.”
Josh Frydenberg defined the squabble as a “proxy war” against Facebook and Google, saying that “I have no doubt that so many other countries are looking at what is happening here in Australia, because of this innovative code the Morrison government is now pursuing, so Facebook and Google have not hidden the fact that they know that the eyes of the world are on Australia, and that is why they have sought to get a code here that is workable.”
However, we will invariably be the party will be brought to heel, and indeed, this week’s victory will be fleeting. As Quiggin noted, that while we’re playing the game, they still own it. “…we have no model for funding news media in the future. We may need direct public funding, perhaps financed by a tax on advertising. In the meantime, forcing Google and Facebook to pay for links is not a particularly satisfactory solution, but it’s the best we’ve got,” he wrote.