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Wednesday, 08 May 2024 09:35

When will Labor level with the public about the Facebook deals? Featured

Stephen Jones: brave words about Facebook, but to what effect? Stephen Jones: brave words about Facebook, but to what effect? Courtesy YouTube/ The Sydney Institute

When will the Federal Government start telling the public the truth about the situation it faces with Facebook, after the social media giant declared, on 29 February, that it would not be renewing deals it had struck in 2021 with Australian media companies, and then followed up by shutting its news tab in Australia?

The deals were done under the former Coalition Government's news media bargaining code and the public were given to believe, by reports in the mainstream media, that Facebook had been forced into these deals by the valiant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

The truth was far less flattering; Frydenberg had to plead with Facebook head honcho Mark Zuckerberg to relent after the latter cut news feeds to Australia altogether.

Once the government crawled back and agreed to Facebook's terms, the firm agreed to negotiate deals with media companies.

Prior to the News Media Code being put in place in 2021, there was a lot of virtuous talk about digital firms owing a debt to media companies because news snippets from the latter were being used by the former.

When the Facebook news tab was shut on 2 April, a spokesperson was quoted as saying there would be no problem for users to post stories on the site if they so wished.

“They can continue to benefit from our free tools and products, which they can voluntarily use, should they want to,” the spokesperson said. “We hope the government sees the many benefits our free services provide to publishers and we’ll continue to engage with them on this topic.”

Meta shut down the news tabs in the UK, France and Germany last year.

But the Labor Government is now following in the footsteps of its Coalition counterpart and trying to make out that it has some magical powers to make Facebook renew the 2021 deals.

Most of the blather that is employed to give this impression consists of "warnings" about how bad Facebook is and what kind of debt it owes to Australian society.

Typical of this kind of bluster was an effort by Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones a few days back.

Thundered the normally level-headed and sober Jones: “Meta [Facebook's parent company] seems more determined to remove journalists from their platform than criminals.

“The government has publicly and privately made our position to Meta very clear: Australian news media businesses should be fairly remunerated for news content used on digital platforms.

“The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is leading direct information gath­ering with news media businesses as it develops its advice to government. The government is following the process to the letter of the law and won’t pre-empt advice from the ACCC and Treasury.”

Brave words, these, but how does Mr Jones propose to enforce them? Ah, there the whole argument falls apart.

Jones made these comments to The Australian, one of the leaders among the mainstream media in spreading disinformation about Facebook and the Labor Government's "powers" to do anything to get the social media giant to reconsider its decision not to renew deals.

There is a reason why The Australian is so agitated about this Facebook move. It has been reported by the Australian Financial Review, that it [The Australian] is getting ready for a major restructure as it tries to cut expenses in order to deal with the expected loss of money from the Facebook deal: a sum close to $17 million.

Given that, one is not surprised that it is giving Jones acres of newsprint to spout criticism of Facebook. Under normal circumstances, no Labor politician ever gets a decent run from Rupert Murdoch's broadsheet.

The Australian report includes this: "The government has pledged to introduce legislation imposing mandatory obligations on social media companies, bank, and telcos providers to disrupt scams and protect their customers and users. Failure to do so will see the imposition of massive fines."

However, the reporter, James Madden, failed to educate the public about the fact that Facebook could just refuse to pay the fines – and wind up its business in Australia if the government continued to push for payment. In other word, just pack its bags and go.

Last year, Facebook showed it has the appetitie for continued fights on this score, and went nuclear in Canada, cutting off access to news feeds in August when the government tried to make it obey a new law. The feeds have not been restored.

For good measure, Madden added a line designed to please his boss: "News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller has previously described misinformation and disinformation as 'the Frankenstein creations built in Meta’s laboratory'. The truth is misinformation and disinformation are phenomena that exist only because of social media’s dominance, business model and deep unwillingness to protect their users.”

Nice bit of spin there, James. But of what use is it when a mega-corporation decides on a course of action and neither the government nor the Australian mainstream media hold hands with no cards in them at all?

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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