4 Ways Australia’s News Experiment Benefits Everyone But You

Winners of the Australia vs Facebook battle include Big Tech, Big Media, and conspiracy theorists: everyone but the public.

The first post I wrote for Chompsky’s launch last year was Can Australia Save Journalism?, a brief explainer on the country’s proposed media bargaining code that sought to force the Big Tech ‘duopoly’ of Facebook and Google to give back some advertising revenue to news outlets. One response in the comments cited Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: “any headline that ends in a question can be answered ‘no’”.

While I wasn’t entirely naive about the code’s limited ability to revolutionise the news, media, and tech industries for good I was hopeful about the development.

Yesterday, as the code was days away from being enshrined in law Facebook banned all Australian news links on the platform, causing a global stir. On the same day, it was reported that Google would tread the opposite path, agreeing to deals with major news conglomerates, the first of which was Murdoch’s News Corp.

In addition to its news outlet blackout, Facebook blocked links from charity sites, political candidates, and government departments, leading Prime Minister Scott Morrison to accuse them of “unfriending” Australia entirely.

Anyone following the story since the summer can see that this effort to revitalise news is not as straightforward as anyone had hoped, except perhaps the bigger media conglomerates. A bigger spotlight is now being given to critics who can explain the ways in which the code is profoundly limited.

After Facebook’s overreaching, “botched” blackout, NYT’s Sydney bureau chief Damian Cave reported three typical responses from Australians: “It’s Facebook’s Fault and It Was Intentional”, “The Law Is Terrible”, and “Mate, Maybe It’s for the Best”, the latter of these being the most hopeful (i.e. it may result in people spending less time on the platform.)

Identifying the faults in Oz’s experiment may help to set the stage for equivalent but improved legislation in other countries. So, here are 4 of them:

1. Murdoch vs the little guy

Lawyer and tech author Lizzie O’Shea says that the code has “several design problems”. While brokering revenue deals may help the news industry in a general, macro sense the sector of the news industry that most needs helping — local, small outlets— is not prioritised:

“…the proposed code was not about protecting the many organisations that generate content and are now contending with blank Facebook pages. Instead, this was tech policy-making driven by large news media companies who saw the opportunity to extract value from an unpopular opponent.”

Cave also highlights this imbalance, outlining the links between the largest media conglomerates and the Australian government:

“…many of the most powerful media figures, including Mr. Murdoch, are closely aligned with the conservative politicians who run the country. […] Josh Frydenberg, who as federal treasurer would have enormous discretion over the new legislation, has media ties of his own. In 2016, he was the best man at the wedding of Ryan Stokes, who is a son of Kerry Stokes, the billionaire owner of Seven West Media, one of the companies that have reached a deal with Google.”

2. Where the economic chips will fall remains to be seen

Other countries, for example, Canada, appear to be considering the bargaining code route already (the UK appears to be favourable to the idea but hasn’t yet implemented anything). The US is forging a different legislative route to combating Big Tech’s advertising monopoly: anti-trust lawsuits.

Cave suggests that some economists argue “better ways to finance journalism” and that many companies who formerly advertised in papers have “fled not to the giant platforms but to real estate apps and other sites”. Any look at the market cap numbers of real estate apps vs Google should put that argument down, but it’s true that the code is by no means the only way an economic restructuring of ad revenue could work.

In addition, Mike Masnick of TechDirt offers an opinion about the economic inevitability of this ‘tax’:

“…most importantly, as any economist will tell you, taxing something doesn’t just bring in revenue, it decreases whatever you tax. This is why we have things like cigarette taxes and pollution taxes. It’s a tool to get less of something. So, in this case, Australia is saying it wants to tax links to news on Facebook, and Facebook responds in the exact way any reasonable economist would predict: it says that’s just not worth it and bans links. That’s not incompatible with democracy. It’s not bringing a country to its knees. The country said “this is how much news links cost” and Facebook said “oh, that’s too expensive, so we’ll stop.”

3. It could worsen Facebook’s misinformation problem

If legitimate news sources are removed from Facebook, what will be left? One might be tempted to look back to a rose-golden age of Facebook: inane status updates, poking, and lolcats. But in today’s reality, it is likely to worsen the site’s focus on vitriolic opinion and dangerous misinformation.

Yesterday, Australians on Facebook found that while numerous neutral, useful links had been blocked, what remained were:

“…pages dedicated to aliens and U.F.O.s; one for a community group called Say No to Vaccines; and plenty of conspiracy theories, some falsely linking 5G to infertility, others spreading lies about Bill Gates and the end of the world.”

Similarly, the inclusion in the code of an obligation to give news outlets 28 days notice of any algorithmic changes is likely to encourage clickbait, says Masnick:

“Facebook and Google may make multiple algorithm changes every day, just to keep their services running. Having to tell newspapers (and them alone) about those changes with a few weeks notice is basically giving those news organizations the keys to the kingdom: it’s telling them how to game the algorithms. If you think bogus clickbait is a problem now, just imagine what it’s like when all of the Australian press get to know the secrets behind the algorithm, and get to prepare for any changes.”

There’s always the possibility, of course — as in the Mate, Maybe It’s For The Best field of criticism — that if the full effects of the above are felt, Facebook will be shown up once and for all as the conspiracy breeding whinge-fest it’s become, and decrease mass interest in the platform. (But given how much power Facebook has shown it holds in the world, let’s not fall into a rose-golden idea of the future also.)

4. Big Media joins Big Tech in gathering Big Data

This is perhaps the clearest representation of the issue with the code as a whole: it doesn’t centre the rights of the average person. There was a sense that this code was supposed to protect journalism from its global erosion as a safeguard of the public and democracy. But in practice, critics say, Google agreeing corporate deals is a commercial rebalancing in favour of the Murdochs, and little else.

Lizzie O’Shea reminds us that by aligning the interests of media and tech conglomerates, the media companies now have even more of a vested interest in selling their users’ data for ad dollars:

“What does it say about tech policy in this country that the human rights of users were almost entirely left out of the conversation? Or that the invasive and exploitative practices of surveillance capitalism, which many people deeply resent, were not merely left untouched by the media code, but indeed entrenched, given that media organisations would have a vested interest in partaking in them?”

Misinformation and user privacy was a focus of the original government report into the issue:

“…the lengthy government report that led to the legislation also included recommendations for laws that would give people more control over their personal data and do more to force platforms to manage misinformation.”

Equivalent legislation, which may well appear in other countries soon enough, must pay attention to these issues as a priority:

  • journalism as a democratic necessity

  • platform users’ and readers’ rights

  • the combating of misinformation

  • and reinstating public trust in journalism.

While the ongoing issue with the code currently rests with how Google and the news outlets’ deals pan out, Facebook’s response may end up backfiring, especially as ever more comes to light about the company’s shady activities. The Financial Times reported today that the company has been misleading its advertising clients (again):

“The world’s largest social media company has since 2018 been fighting a class-action lawsuit claiming that its executives knew its “potential reach metric”, used to inform advertisers of their potential audience size, was inflated but failed to correct it. According to sections of a filing in the lawsuit that were unredacted on Wednesday, a Facebook product manager in charge of potential reach proposed changing the definition of the metric in mid-2018 to render it more accurate. However, internal emails show that his suggestion was rebuffed by Facebook executives overseeing metrics on the grounds that the “revenue impact” for the company would be “significant”, the filing said.”

Now that the companies are now fighting lawsuits and legislative battles on several continents, whether they will continue to be a desirable option for advertisers remains unclear. If anti-trust lawsuits have any success, it could be that the global landscape is changed significantly for journalists. But if equivalent codes are implemented in other countries, they are going to need to centre different priorities than Australia’s.