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Monday, March 08, 2021, 12:38
Australia’s new media law may not benefit all
By Karl Wilson in Sydney
Monday, March 08, 2021, 12:38 By Karl Wilson in Sydney

To some observers, the Australian government’s decision to amend its News Media Bargaining Code just to placate Facebook, a company based on the other side of the world, was a pathetic climb-down on a goal to rein in global tech giants.

Yet, unlike India’s restrictions on Facebook and other platforms, last week’s modification was also seen as a win for the government, social media, and Australia’s media giants by other analysts.

Under the code, social media giants such as Facebook and Google will have to pay Australian news publishers for displaying their content in a deal many say will benefit big media companies at the expense of smaller, independently owned media outfits especially in rural Australia.

Together, Australian media giants such as the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp Australia and Nine Entertainment which owns the Fairfax newspaper group control most of Australia’s print media.

They, along with smaller Australian media outfits such as Seven West Media, have long claimed the likes of Google and Facebook have not only siphoned off valuable advertising revenue, but in doing so also lowered the quality of journalism in Australia.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the national watchdog on consumer issues, held an 18-month inquiry and found there was an imbalance between the social media groups and media companies that threatened the viability of news businesses.

While Google came to the party early, Facebook held off until Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and co-founder of Facebook, agreed to some “minor “changes to the code.

It came after Facebook flexed its muscles and banned Australian media and scores of other “non” media including COVID-19 sites from Facebook.

One amendment requires the Treasurer to consider whether the digital platforms have already struck commercial agreements with news publishers before passing further regulation to make the code formally apply to them.

In the event the Treasurer decides to enforce the code, the tech giants must be given one month’s notice. The Senate passed the code on Feb 23 and by the end of the week, all was back to normal.

The government got its bargaining code, Australian news businesses will get their checks, and Facebook gets a few key concessions. So, what changed?

The social media behemoth negotiated small but important changes, which means there is a good chance the code may never be used at all, said Tama Leaver, a professor of internet studies at Curtin University in Western Australia, to a local broadcasting corporation.

“The code will sit in the Treasurer’s desk and he can pull the trigger whenever a platform is big enough to squeeze for money,” Leaver said.

The losers will be smaller, independent media outfits.

Marc Cheong, a research fellow at the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Ethics at the University of Melbourne, said that this may be an interesting experiment.

“Politics aside, this might prove to be an interesting experiment on how social media users’ news consumption changes over time, which might well prove to be a double-edged sword,” he said.

“The downside is that people who are over reliant on using Facebook to access news might take epistemic ‘shortcuts’ to obtain news and information, such as sharing of non-verified anecdotes to fill the news vacuum, which increase their susceptibility to misinformation.”

Tanya Notley, senior lecturer at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University, said the code has been on the table for years, but it appears that the final version arrived with the participation of too few actors.

“It’s the public who lose out here. For those who spend many hours each day on Facebook, which is a significant proportion of the Australian adult population, their information access and sharing options and choices have now been diminished,” Notley said.

Suranga Seneviratne, a lecturer in security from the School of Computer Science at the University of Sydney, noted that Facebook’s biggest asset is its user base.

In India, new Intermediary Liability Rules require Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms to remove certain types of content, including posts of indecent acts, while allowing traceability of encrypted messages among others.


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