Facebook will soon block Aussie News sites – What does this mean for major media & minnows like FSN?

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has made it crystal clear it isn’t going to sign new compensation agreements with major Aussie media to help fund public interest journalism in Australia. Our editor, Michael Barker, asks: if Meta vacates the Aussie news field, rather than submit to Australian law requiring it to strike agreements with major Aussie media, how will Australians get their news? How will public interest journalism then be funded? Will media minnows like Fremantle Shipping News, who currently don’t get a penny from the tech giants, be blocked from the Meta platforms too?

On 29 February 2024, Facebook issued this statement –

In early April 2024, we will deprecate Facebook News – a dedicated tab in the bookmarks section on Facebook that spotlights news – in the US and Australia. This follows our September 2023 announcement that we deprecated Facebook News in the UK, France and Germany last year.  
This is part of an ongoing effort to better align our investments to our products and services people value the most. As a company, we have to focus our time and resources on things people tell us they want to see more of on the platform, including short form video. The number of people using Facebook News in Australia and the U.S. has dropped by over 80% last year. We know that people don’t come to Facebook for news and political content — they come to connect with people and discover new opportunities, passions and interests. As we previously shared in 2023, news makes up less than 3% of what people around the world see in their Facebook feed, and is a small part of the Facebook experience for the vast majority of people.

The changes affecting the Facebook News feature will not otherwise impact Meta’s products and services in these countries. People will still be able to view links to news articles on Facebook. News publishers will continue to have access to their Facebook accounts and Pages, where they can post links to their stories and direct people to their websites, in the same way any other individual or organization can. News organizations can also still leverage products like Reels and our ads system to reach broader audiences and drive people to their website, where they keep 100% of the revenue derived from outbound links on Facebook. 

While we’ll be deprecating Facebook News in these countries, this announcement does not impact the terms under our existing Facebook News agreements with publishers in Australia, France and Germany. These deals have already expired in the US and the UK. Additionally, to ensure that we continue to invest in products and services that drive user engagement, we will not enter into new commercial deals for traditional news content in these countries and will not offer new Facebook products specifically for news publishers in the future. 

Facebook has now followed through on its threat/advice to ‘deprecate’, that is, discontinue providing, the Facebook News tab in Australia and the US.

The question that remains is whether Meta/Facebook will now actually refuse to renew the agreements made three years ago at the urging of Josh Frydenberg as Treasurer in the Morrison Government, largely at the behest of the Murdochs and News Corp, but not just them, by which the tech giants, Google and Meta agreed to pay major Australian media companies, like News Corp, relatively large sums of money for revenue major media said they had lost to the tech giants by reason of the tech companies’ business models. But there’s no reason to think Meta will not do exactly what it says it will do, that is, ‘not offer new Facebook products specifically for news publishers in the future’.

Here’s the backstory.

Three years ago Australia introduced the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code as a mandatory code to ‘help support the sustainability of public interest journalism in Australia’. The Code enabled ‘eligible news businesses’ – but not small public interest outlets like Fremantle Shipping News – to bargain individually or collectively with the digital platforms over payment for the inclusion of news on the tech giants’ platforms and services. Digital platforms were obliged to participate in the Code if the Treasurer made a determination ‘designating’ that the Code applies to them. To date, no digital platform has been designated to participate in the Code. As ‘eligible corporations’ struck deals with the tech giants there was no need. But now Meta isn’t playing nice and refusing to countenance making fresh agreements when the current ones expire.

The tech giants have never accepted the premise that they have siphoned off revenue from major media. They say they assist major media in getting them business and earning revenue. Meta/Facebooks’ recent February statement is not so much a declaration of war on Australia, as a clear statement of intention not to renew the existing media agreements and, if necessary, to vacate the business of disseminating news in Australia. If they do that, they won’t have an Australian business that can be ‘designated’ by the Treasurer under the Aussie code.

Canada has been the latest location for the tech giants to join battle on these issues with major media and national governments, and what has happened in Canada is a portent of what is likely to happen next in Australia. It suggests Meta is deadly serious on doing what it says it will do. Google may well be a different case. We will soon find out.

In the middle of 2023, Canada passed the Online News Act. It’s designed to ‘enhance fairness’ in the news industry. It applies to companies that operate social media platforms and search engines that have a total global revenue exceeding $1 billion Canadian in a year. And they also have to have an average of 20 million monthly Canadian active users to be caught by the legislation. Payments to local Canadian media companies depend on how many full time employees they have. On the face of it, major Canadian media will be the beneficiaries. Interestingly, a deal has already been struck with Google.

Meta, however, was not and is not impressed. On the passage of the Online News Act, Nick Clegg, President, Global Affairs at Meta, and former UK Deputy PM as leader of the LibDems, immediately released this statement on behalf of Meta –

[T]he Online News Act is based on a fundamentally flawed premise. Meta does not benefit unfairly from people sharing links to news content on our platform. The reverse is true. Publishers choose to share their content because it benefits them to do so, whereas it isn’t particularly valuable to us at all. As such, we’ve taken the difficult decision that if this flawed legislation is passed, we will have to end the availability of news content on Facebook and Instagram in Canada. 

The truth is, our users don’t come to us for news. They come to share the ups and downs of life, the things that make them happy and sad, that interest them and entertain them. Links to news stories are a tiny proportion of that – less than three percent of the content they see in their Facebook Feed.

But news publishers do find our services valuable. We estimate that Facebook Feed sent registered news publishers in Canada more than 1.9 billion clicks in the 12 months to April 2022. This amounts to free marketing we estimate is worth more than $230 million. Publishers choose to share their content because it drives traffic to their websites. It helps them sell more subscriptions, grow their audience and display their ads to more people than they might have otherwise.

The traditional news industry faces profound challenges. New technology has emerged, consumer behavior has changed, and old business models don’t work anymore. Of course, everyone wants quality journalism to thrive. But it makes no more sense to claim social media companies are taking money from publishers than to say car companies stole from the horse and cart industry.

It seems we’re having a debate as if the internet was frozen in time about 10 years ago. The way our users engage with content has changed dramatically. Just in the last year or two we’ve seen an enormous shift in people consuming creator content and short form video. Watching video is now more than half of time spent on Facebook and Instagram. People reshare Reels – our short form video format – more than 2 billion times every day on Facebook and Instagram, which has doubled in just the last six months.

The world is constantly changing and publishers, like everyone else, have to adapt. Asking a social media company in 2023 to subsidize news publishers for content that isn’t that important to our users is like asking email providers to pay the postal service because people don’t send letters any more.

And not all internet companies are the same. We’re not Google. They are an amazingly successful company that does extraordinarily useful things for people, but they operate a search engine that functions by using links to news web pages. Meta, by contrast, doesn’t solicit, need or collect content from news websites to put on our services. Our users – and in this case news publishers – choose to share it themselves. Globally, more than 90% of organic views on article links from news publishers are on links posted by the publishers themselves.

I’ve heard a lot in this debate about how this legislation is replicating what Australia has done. In fact, the laws are different in important respects – and C-18 will go further than the Australian legislation. First, the Australian code doesn’t apply to Meta because we haven’t been designated by the Treasurer there. If we do end up being designated and forced to pay publishers, we will be faced with the same difficult choice we are making in Canada. But perhaps more significantly, this legislation would make Canada the first democracy to put a price on free links to web pages, which flies in the face of global norms on copyright principles and puts at risk the free flow of information online. Canada – and Canadian liberals – have a long-standing reputation for believing in multilateralism, and for defending the free and open internet – C-18 would be a direct contradiction of that long held and honorable tradition.

I spent 20 years of my life as a legislator, so I understand how difficult it is to craft good policy and sensible legislation. In this instance, I believe C-18 is flawed legislation which would deliver bad economic policy too. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that most of the funds generated by the Act will go to broadcasters, not the local and regional publishers it was supposed to support. It’s Robin Hood in reverse.  The Act would subsidize big broadcasters at the expense of independent publishers and digital news sites, skewing the playing field so it’s even harder for smaller players.

Ultimately, this legislation puts Meta in an invidious position. In order to comply, we have to either operate in a flawed and unfair regulatory environment, or we have to end the availability of news content in Canada. With a heavy heart we choose the latter. As the Minister of Canadian Heritage has said, this is a business decision. It’s not something we want to do, but it is what we will have to do. 

Based on the Canadian experience we can fully expect Meta to take a similar position in Australia and largely vacate the news dissemination field – Meta would ‘end the availability of news content’ in Australia.

Whether Google will do an Aussie deal, as it has a Canadian deal, remains to be seen.

And whether Meta decides to block all Aussie media outlets, including minnow media like Fremantle Shipping News who receive no compensation under the existing agreements with Meta and Google, and are happy to use the Meta platforms to drive viewers to their websites without being compensated, also remains to be seen. Surely not! Why would Meta block the Shipping News? Why would it decide to prevent us from communicating with our local Freo community? But they have before, 3 years ago when they blocked all sites they deemed to be news sites, and perhaps they will again.

So, unless the Australian Government backs down and reverses the mandatory Code requirements, ‘we have an issue Houston!’

What the Meta block would mean more generally, if it happens, is that if you want Aussie news from Aussie media sites you will need to be following their homepages online – and negotiating the paywalls most if not all major media have in place – unlike sites like Fremantle Shipping News which are reader-supported and volunteer-assisted and access is free!

But will the paywalls produce enough revenue for major media to support public interest journalism? The fear is it won’t. And if it doesn’t, how will public interest journalism survive, let alone prosper.

Writing in The Conversation recently in this topic, Peter Greste says –

If we accept that news is a public good, not something we can treat as a product to be traded like soap, then we have to develop economic models that somehow get the public to pay for it. It could be something like a levy – similar to Medicare’s – that recognises even if we don’t all consume news equally, we are collectively better off by having good journalism that’s free from commercial or political pressure.

It is a difficult conversation to have, particularly when most Australians say they don’t trust the media, and more and more of us are giving up on news altogether.

And that brings us to the other truth this crisis has exposed: our consumption of media has changed irreversibly. Fewer and fewer people are reading long news stories or wading through heavy TV bulletins. Now, short-form videos on TikTok, YouTube and Facebook are dominant. The news industry needs to meet audiences where they are, and accept that the ways of presenting news must also radically change.

Our ways of consuming the news have changed, with short-form videos now dominant.
This is not to suggest all journalism should henceforth be presented as TikTok videos. But forcing digital giants to prop up analogue-era news companies cements a system that is no longer fit for purpose.

By trying to make the big digital giants pay for content they ultimately profit from, the News Media Bargaining Code started with the right intention. But now that Meta has decided it is no longer worth it, we have a chance to radically rethink and redesign how we finance and deliver news – in a way that works for us all.

These are big questions. Get ready for the Meta block. Get ready for the Meta pile-on. Get ready for the funding discussion!

In the meantime, we are worried about our own existence here at Fremantle Shipping News. As we asked above, why would Meta/Facebook be minded to block minnow media like FSN that provides community news in the Freo public interest?

We asked ChatGPT about the negative effects of a Facebook block would have on us. Here’s what it wrote –

Facebook blocking news pages from Australia has negative implications for small sites like Fremantle Shipping News for several reasons:

1. **Loss of Audience Reach:** Facebook is a major platform for content distribution, allowing small news sites to reach a broader audience. Blocking news pages means these sites lose a crucial avenue for sharing their content and connecting with readers, potentially leading to a decline in traffic and engagement.

2. **Impact on Revenue:** Many small news sites rely on social media platforms like Facebook for driving traffic to their websites, which in turn affects their advertising revenue and sustainability. Without the ability to share their articles on Facebook, these sites may struggle to generate enough income to support their operations.

3. **Limitation of Information Access:** Facebook’s decision to block news pages restricts users’ access to diverse sources of information. Small news sites often cover local stories and niche topics that may not be covered by larger mainstream outlets. Blocking these pages deprives users of valuable insights and perspectives, undermining the diversity of information available online.

4. **Undermining Press Freedom:** By unilaterally blocking news pages, Facebook exerts significant control over the flow of information, potentially infringing on press freedom. Small news sites play a crucial role in providing alternative viewpoints and holding power to account at the local level. Blocking their content limits the plurality of voices in the media landscape.

In summary, Facebook’s decision to block news pages from Australia negatively impacts small sites like Fremantle Shipping News by limiting their audience reach, reducing revenue opportunities, restricting access to information, and undermining press freedom.

Must say, ChatGPT is spot on!

By Michael Barker, Editor, Fremantle Shipping News


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