On Thursday, Australians woke to find Facebook had banned all news on the platform. Liberal PM Scott Morrison has refused to back down over the laws that triggered the move. Beneath the rhetoric, Morrison’s stand is about serving the interests of News Corp, not saving democracy.
[...] Facebook implemented its Australia-wide ban on news in response to the Morrison government’s proposed News Media Bargaining Code, soon set to pass in the Senate.
The legislation would force Google and Facebook to pay publishers for digital content. Facebook argues that the new code “penalizes Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.” The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission counters, insisting that the laws will redress “a fundamental bargaining-power imbalance between news media businesses and the major digital platforms.”
Neither position is genuine. There is no doubt Facebook is “asking for” Australian news content. It’s also making money from it, although it’s unclear exactly how much. Similarly, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, the driving force behind the new code, has a long track record of favoring fundamental power imbalances — but only when they serve its interests.
This isn’t the first standoff between tech giants, national governments, and traditional news companies over profits and market share. Google implemented a news ban in Spain in 2014 when that country enacted similar legislation. On the other side, the EU’s much vaunted copyright directive in 2019 was a warning shot aimed squarely at Facebook and its ilk. But the dramatic — and very public — nature of the current standoff puts both parties in an awkward spot.
It seems that Facebook has chosen to coerce a “middle power” like Australia, gambling that the risks are worthwhile in exchange for setting a precedent. But Morrison is under immense pressure. Backing down would be a potentially career-ending humiliation, and he is now facing considerable heat to hold the line. All of Australia’s larger trading partners and allies are watching the events with great interest and murmurs of encouragement.
Rupert Murdoch has also made his expectations — and the consequences of ignoring them — clear. After all, Morrison came to power in an internal party coup backed by Murdoch. In case he had forgotten, some twenty-four hours before Facebook’s ban came into effect, News Corp’s most vicious attack dogs begun raising questions about Morrison’s leadership. The timing was curious.
Mastheads owned by the Nine Entertainment Company, the Murdoch family’s traditional mortal enemies, have also urged the Morrison government to stand its ground. They’ve cited a recent tax victory over Amazon as a precedent asserting the superiority of governmental power, while deriding Facebook as a “nationless state” getting too big for its boots.
For its part, Google has wagered that negotiated peace is preferable to open war, sealing a deal with News Corp to pay for content just hours before Facebook spat the dummy. As pressure on Facebook now mounts, the days and weeks to come will reveal whether the tech giant has badly miscalculated.[...]