SAN FRANCISCO – Facebook said Monday it would restore news link sharing and viewing in Australia after gaining more time to negotiate a bill that it would pay for news content appearing on its site.
The social network had blocked news links in Australia last week as the new law neared passage. The legislation includes a code of conduct that allows media companies to negotiate individually or collectively with digital platforms about the value of their news content.
Facebook had strongly objected to the code, which would limit its power and increase its spending on content, as well as set a precedent for other governments to follow. The company had argued that news would not be worth the effort in Australia if the bill became law.
But on Monday, Facebook returned to the negotiating table after the Australian government made a few minor concessions. Several changes to the code would give Facebook more time to make deals with publishers so it wouldn't be immediately forced into making payments. The changes also suggested that if digital platforms had contributed significantly to the Australian news industry, the companies could avoid the code entirely, at least for now.
In return, Facebook agreed to restore news links and articles for Australian users "in the coming days," according to a statement by Josh Frydenberg, Australia's treasurer, and Paul Fletcher, the communications, infrastructure, cities and arts minister.
Campbell Brown, Facebook's vice president of global news partnerships, said in a statement that the social network was recovering news in Australia, as the government has clarified that we will retain the ability to decide whether news appears on Facebook so that we are not automatically subject to forced negotiation. "
The changes provide reprieve for both Facebook and the Australian government, which have been in deadlock on the proposed law for months. Those tensions came to a head last week when Facebook stopped sharing news in the country, causing disruption and confusion for millions of Australians.
Links to news articles were blocked, as well as Facebook pages for Australian government agencies, health departments and emergency services. Users became upset when a deluge of false or misleading pages filled the void, spreading false theories about the dangers of 5G wireless technology and false claims about Covid-19 vaccinations.
“Within a few days, we saw the damage that news brought out can cause, ”said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at the Stony Brook School of Communication and Journalism. "Misinformation and disinformation, already a problem on the platform, rushed to fill the vacuum."
The dispute between Australia and Facebook dates back to when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the country's main competition authority, began drafting a bill last year. Australian officials have said the bill's main purpose was to create the conditions for deals between platforms and publishers, who have been at odds for years about the value of journalism and whether both parties should be paid by the other.
Google and Facebook, which are used to largely not paying for news content, both objected to the proposed legislation. In August, Facebook said it did block users and news organizations in Australia of sharing local and international news stories on his social network and Instagram should the bill go further. Last month, Google also threatened to make its search engine unavailable in Australia if the government passed the legislation.
But in recent weeks, Google has begun to strike deals with media companies such as Reuters, The Financial Times and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
Facebook, on the other hand, stood up against the proposed legislation. This was because the code included terms such as "final arbitration," which would empower an independent arbitrator to set the price for news content if a publisher and the digital platform could not agree on a payment.
Facebook has repeatedly argued that the law reverses the value proposition, saying that it is the one that adds value to news publishers by driving traffic to media websites, which can then be monetized by advertising.
But advocates of the law have said final arbitration – which is used for contract disputes between players and Major League Baseball in the United States – provides leverage when a side is strong enough to avoid negotiating otherwise if it so chooses.
“The key is and will remain the mandatory arbitration clause,” said Johan Lidberg, a media professor at Monash University. “That must be maintained; without this code, the code would be toothless. "
The proposed law also opens up the possibility for a long line of publishers to demand payouts. Any news publisher with more than $ 150,000 in annual revenue could try to register as a party to the code, giving it the opportunity to force a company like Facebook into negotiation.
The law would also give the federal treasurer enormous discretion. Mr. Frydenberg would have the authority to designate which companies are required to negotiate under the provisions of the code, while also deciding which media companies can register. Facebook and Google have tried to avoid that designation.
With the new changes, Australian officials seemed to be giving Facebook more time to produce the kind of deals that Google has already done, while continuing to hold the hammer of the latest arbitration above the company's head. Facebook claims it can still remove news from its platform to potentially avoid negotiation.
In its statement, the government argued that the changes would strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers in obtaining appropriate compensation for the use of their content by the digital platforms.
But if the government agrees not to subject Facebook to the code because it makes enough deals with major media companies, smaller publishers may be left out.
"For small publishers and freelance journalists who have become dependent on Facebook to spread their news, it will be a huge relief that the news tap has been turned on again," said Marcus Strom, president of the Australian Journalists' Association. "But they remain at the mercy of Facebook and Google, both of which try to circumvent mandatory regulations and instead choose which media companies to contract with."
Mike Isaac reported from San Francisco and Damien Cave from Sydney, Australia.