Digital secretary meets with Australian counterpart over Facebook face-off

Written by Sam Trendall on 4 March 2021 in News
News

Discussion covered regulation, free speech and media

Credit: Christoph Scholz/CC BY-SA 2.0

Oliver Dowden has revealed he recently met with his Australian counterpart to discuss the country’s recent showdown with Facebook, which saw the social media site ban all news content.

New legislation in Australia aimed to force Google, Facebook and others to pay publishers a fee for their content – in instances where a price has not been agreed. This amount would be set by a panel, proposed the law, which was intended to chiefly benefit smaller media outlets.

Unhappy with the proposals, Facebook pulled last month all news content from its Australian site, leaving its users in the country unable to see any content from news feeds – as well as various other pages that found themselves caught in the shutdown, including government agencies and public-health authorities.  

Shortly after the news broke, Dowden, the secretary  of state for digital, culture, media and sport, was reported to have met with Facebook to discuss a matter that his department’s select committee indicated was a worrying development.

“Facebook’s actions in Australia should be of great concern in the UK at a time when our own Government is bringing forward legislation to regulate social media companies,” said committee chair Julian Knight.  “Facebook has shown its absolute disregard for the public interest, being all too ready to use its power to further its own agenda. The DCMS Committee is deeply concerned that trusted news sources are promoted, to combat the scourge of misinformation and will be ensuring the Online Harms legislation is tough enough on this.”


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Within a week, Facebook restored news to its Australian site, after reaching an agreement with the government in which amendments were made, including longer periods for deals to be struck with publishers, and the effective removal of the possibility of forced arbitration.

“After further discussions with the Australian government, we have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers,” said Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships. “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. It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook.”

Public figures from politics and the media have expressed concerns.

In an open letter – titled “big tech’s Australia deal imperils democracy” – Daily Mail chairman Lord Rothermere said that the social network had blackmailed lawmakers.

“A nation was held to ransom — and it surrendered,” he wrote, in the Financial Times.” As long as the platforms persuade enough desperate news publishers to sign take-it-or-leave-it deals, there will now be no fair, independent arbitration.”

Shortly after the Australian government had, in its own words, “refriended” Facebook, Dowden said he had held discussions with his counterpart – presumably communications minister Paul Fletcher – to talk over the matter, and its longer-term impact.

“We have a close relationship with our Australian allies,” the digital secretary said. “I met with my counterpart in the Australian Government on 25 February 2021 to discuss digital regulation, and the importance of defending free speech and supporting the sustainability of the press.”

Dowden was responding to a written parliamentary question from fellow Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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