By Gavin Ellis

We have been shocked by Facebook’s Australian news ban because we have been labouring under a misapprehension: We thought it was a public utility.

It was conceived as a utility (for Harvard University students) and founder Mark Zuckerberg has been masterful in characterising the platform as a democratic space since it moved beyond the ivy league university community to embrace ordinary folk like you and me.

The generic term ‘social media platform’ lends further weight to the perception that it is like a digital version of the companies that supply our electricity and phone services. We see it as a multimedia replacement for yesterday’s mail and landline.

So, when the company suddenly cut Australian news media sources – and, temporarily, weather and some emergency services – the shock didn’t stop at the continent’s vast shoreline. Many countries asked, ‘How could this possibly happen?’

It was seen in the same terms as a unilateral decision to cut off a community’s water supply, a callous withdrawal of what was regarded as a necessity.

Unfortunately, the Internet has created perceptions that owe more to promise than reality. It has been able to do so because its frighteningly fast development has been haphazard and sometimes anarchic. And, beguilingly, so much of it has been free. Or so it seemed.

I am now sufficiently embedded as a septuagenarian that I can say – with the benefit of some experience – that there is no such thing as a free lunch. What appears to be a free utility serving a much-needed social purpose is no such thing.

Facebook is not a public utility. It does not exist to provide a service to its users, and it does nothing for nothing. Its users are not customers but a commodity. They are the raw material used to attract business. The profile of each of its 2.79 billion global users has been meticulously harvested by Facebook to provide advertisers with targeted audiences. And it does so while attempting, with diminishing success, to deny that it is a publisher – with the attendant obligations that traditional publishers assume.

Facebook exists solely to make money for its largely institutional investors, and it makes a large amount of it. Last year its profit topped $US 29 billion (just short of the GDP of Estonia) and 98 per cent of its $US85.9 billion revenue came from those advertisers.

Facebook flicked the off switch when the Australian federal government pressed ahead with its promised legislation aimed at requiring social media platforms to pay for material produced by Australian news media. It did so for a number of reasons but the most obvious one was “Because we can”.

It can do so because it sees itself as a commercial entity carrying out a legitimate business in an environment that is about to change. If that environment is not to its liking, it is within its rights to withdraw from activities adversely impacted by that change.

It’s not unusual: Look at landlords leaving the residential rental business before new laws take effect.

However, can you imagine an electricity supply company shutting down its grid and allowing the supply area to be plunged into darkness? Or your telco pulling the plug?

Utilities accept certain obligations as the quid pro quo for being permitted to offer essential services. One of those obligations is continuity of services (allowing, of course, for technical outages).

Social media is now seen by many as an essential service. Much of their social interaction and information gathering depends on these platforms. Their primary access to news is through social media and Facebook is the dominant provider. The platforms enjoy service provider status in the United States where Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act (which Facebook has happily hidden behind) shields “providers of interactive computer services” from prosecution over material posted by users.

The reaction by governments, news media and many users in a number of countries suggest that only Facebook sees itself as a company with the autonomy to make arbitrary decisions in its commercial interests. Most see the Australian ban as an unacceptable action by a service provider.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote (ironically on Facebook): “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing. They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.” New Zealand’s communications minister Kris Faafoi was more restrained but admitted the country “wouldn’t be impressed” if Facebook banned Kiwis from accessing news on its platform.

Swinburne University of Technology lecturer Belinda Barnet wrote on The Guardian website: “It makes a mockery of the public commitment to the ‘long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector’. Facebook clearly never had the ‘best interests of the news media industry’ in mind.” Here, AUT senior lecturer Merja Myllylahti posted on LinkedIn: “Facebook has shown again that it is not for democracy, it is anti-democratic, and not willing to follow laws of the country.”

Peter Lewis, the director of the Centre for Responsible Technology at the Australian Institute fulminated in The Australian. “That Facebook would consciously choose to purge fact-based journalism from their networks in the middle of a global pandemic,” he said, “is a breathtaking act of corporate arrogance against the Australian people.”

New Zealand media consultant Peter Bale, while critical of the Australian legislation, acknowledged “One fear in the Facebook case has to be that a decision to remove journalism from the platform will leave it an even worse desert of misinformation, disinformation and conspiracies with no counterweight of accurate news.” I differ with Peter Bale on the Australian legislation – I support it – but I agree with him on that.

The criticism of Facebook has been equally fierce further afield. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, in charge of crafting legislation similar to Australia’s, condemned Facebook’s action and said it would not deter Ottawa.Publishers’ body NewsMediaCanada said Facebook showed its ‘true colours’ in trying to blackmail Australia and Canadians should take notice.

Legislation along the Australian line was the key recommendation of a report by NewsMediaCanada last September titled Levelling the Digital Playing Field. The organisation now recommends an alliance with Australia to stand up to Facebook. It has also called on the Canadian government to speed up its own legislative process. It is worried that the Big Tech companies like Facebook will use any lead time to develop further ‘bareknuckle tactics’ and continue a divide-and-conquer strategy that has subverted a unified front. Selective deal-making (and sponsorship of news industry bodies) has been made possible by the fact that news media companies do derive benefit from referrals to their websites from Facebook pages. That’s why many of them are continuing to talk to Facebook in spite of the Australian ban. However, the financial benefit is disproportionately small, both in relation to Facebook’s revenue and the importance of news media content in the overall platform mix.

The Australian ban may provide some revealing insights into that level of importance, but it will also sheet home the fact that Facebook has a utility function that demands it accepts obligations that have long been accepted by telcos and power companies.

Such obligations are enforced by legislation, regulation and mandatory codes. In most cases these are territorial, but the global nature of social media would require either a critical mass of countries to agree to similar governance or an international treaty. Both are easier said than done.

If international regulation is not forthcoming, and if Facebook is unwilling to submit to local regulation (and to equitably pay its way), perhaps it will be time to look at alternatives.

The development of the Internet may have been haphazard, but it has also spawned a remarkable ability to invent services to meet unfulfilled need. Facebook has dramatically demonstrated that someone now needs to come along with a social media platform that operates with the same service philosophy and integrity as the organisations which supply the electricity that powers my computer and provide my access to the broadband network.

Public interest journalism

I was consulted on the Government’s $55 million fund for public interest journalism and feel constrained in what I can say about it. I do believe I can make the following points:

  • Any injection of funds into this area of journalism is to be warmly welcomed.
  • The broad definition of ‘public interest journalism’ allows funds to be applied across a wide spectrum and it is vital that it is not largely expended on a small number of attractive but expensive projects such as one-off investigations or broadcast video series.
  • The need is not only project-specific. Some basic areas of public interest journalism such as court reporting are underserved and require staffing.
  • Allocations should not be based solely on size of audience. Some of the biggest resource and financial deficits are at regional and local level and public interest in local roading is, relatively speaking, as important as the national airline’s international contracts.
  • NZ on Air’s role as a media funding agency has been evolving. It is vital that applications and allocations of funding are judged by new standards rather than the existing system whose genesis has been broadcasting and programme based. It is encouraging, therefore that NZ on Air has advertised the position of Head of Journalism to oversee processes.
  • I hope the fund represents new money and is not expected to fund renewal of activities for which NZ on Air has allocated current funding. I acknowledge that the Local Democracy Reporting initiative is expected to be funded from this source when its current funding runs out at the end of the year but it was, after all, the precursor to the enlarged public interest journalism remit. However, the impact of the fund will be diminished if a significant portion of the $55 million over three years is expended on other existing projects.
  • NZ on Air should put out its draft framework and funding criteria for public comment before implementation.

This article was originally featured on The Knightly Views.

Dr. Gavin Ellis is a media researcher and commentator. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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