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Facebook’s Australian News Blackout Is Coming to an End

With a new Australian law intensifying the long-running battle between publishers and the two tech giants gobbling up digital advertising dollars, Google last week struck deals with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Reuters, while Facebook took another route: shutting down news on the continent. Prime Minister Scott Morrison railed against “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia” on—where else?—Facebook, and warned of Big Tech companies thinking “they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.” Now, less than week since turning off the news spigot, Facebook will once again allow Australian users to share and view news stories on its platform in the coming days, the company announced Monday, lifting the temporary ban it placed in response to the law that would have required it to pay Australian publishers for news content. 

The reversal came after the Australian government agreed to concessions to its new media code that, among other things, appeared to give Facebook more time to strike enough deals with publishers to avoid the most severe parts of the proposed legislation, the New York Times reports. Facebook’s ban, and Google’s opposite approach, was the culmination of long-standing opposition between the tech companies and the Australian government over the proposed legislation. Both Facebook and Google had opposed the new law, particularly its inclusion of “a code of conduct that would allow media companies to bargain individually or collectively with digital platforms over the value of their news content,” the Times reports. The code contained terms for “final arbitration,” enabling third-parties to set the price for news content if the platform and publisher could not come to a payout agreement themselves—forcing the tech giants into a negotiation and limiting their power. 

In August, Facebook threatened to block news from its site if the bill moved forward, and Google last month threatened to completely shut down its search engine in the country as the legislation—which would require Google to pay the news websites it links to in general search results—neared passage. But while Google ultimately walked back that claim in striking recent deals with publishers, such as Murdoch’s News Corp., Facebook made good on its threat and went dark. Last week’s Facebook ban not only blocked all users in Australia from seeing any news content—regardless of whether it was from Australian or non-Australian publishers—but also cut off all global users from sharing links to Australian news publishers.

However, Facebook changed course on Monday, as Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, said that the Australian government “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” and that the company had “come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers.”

Facebook’s temporary ban on news sharing quickly revealed the broader conflict at play, which is the power that tech giants hold over publishers, Axios reports. While the proposed law was aimed at helping publishers, data shows that Facebook’s response—cutting off all link-sharing—resulted in a large loss of traffic for regional publishers. The ban reportedly temporarily blocked the Facebook pages for Australian state agencies, health departments, and emergency services providing essential information, and, amid the news void, offered an opportunity for false or misleading information to take hold, according to the Times. “In just a few days, we saw the damage that taking news out can cause,” Stony Brook professor Sree Sreenivasan told the paper. “Misinformation and disinformation, already a problem on the platform, rushed to fill the vacuum.”

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