SAN FRANCISCO – Facebook and Google have been clashing with news publishers and lawmakers in Australia for months.
At the heart of the struggle is whether the tech giants should pay news organizations for the news articles shared on their networks. Under a bill from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, both Google and Facebook would have to negotiate with media publishers and compensate them for the content that appears on their websites.
Facebook and Google have fought hard to keep Australian law – expected to be passed this week or next – from forcing their hands. But on Wednesday the two companies were very divided on how to approach this regulatory future.
Google started the day by announcing a three-year global agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to pay for the publisher’s news content. This is one of several recently announced deals that appear to meet the publisher’s needs. Hours later, Facebook went the other way, saying it would prevent people and publishers from sharing or viewing news links in Australia, which took effect immediately.
In conciliatory language to publishers, Don Harrison, president of global partnerships at Google, said the company had invested over the years to help news organizations and that it was hoping “To announce even more partnerships soon.”
Facebook adopted a significantly different tone. “The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” said William Easton, CEO of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, of the draft Australian legislation.
The divergence shows the different approaches Facebook and Google take to news. The two internet giants had treated news publishers more or less the same way for years. Both had little incentive to pay news for content and rightly argued that they would have helped move many readers to news that would otherwise go unnoticed on high-traffic sites.
However, the steady decline in newspapers – versus the billions of dollars made by Google and Facebook in digital advertising – compounded the question of whether the platforms are responsible for funding publishers. In the past few years, both companies began paying news organizations through various programs as criticism of misinformation on their platforms seemed to increase the need for high quality journalism.
The situation in Australia has now underlined that the lockstep approach can only go so far because Facebook and Google ultimately rate news differently. Google’s mission statement has long been to organize the world’s information, a goal that cannot be achieved without breaking the news. News is not that central to Facebook. Instead, the company positions itself as a network of users who come together to share photos, political views, internet memes, videos, and the occasional news article.
“Google is already used to playing a different game in each country,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, about the different approaches the companies take. While he said Facebook has a moral stance, Google “may have gone beyond that fantasy of a universal approach to doing business in the world”.
Paul Fletcher, Australia’s communications minister, said the government would push the legislation forward even if talks with Facebook continue.
In interviews, he praised Google for its involvement in the process and suggested that Facebook scrutinize it carefully in order to decide “to remove all authoritative and credible news sources from the platform”. In an interview with 2GB Radio, Fletcher added that the decision “certainly raises questions about the credibility of information on the platform”.
The Australian Competition and Consumers Commission, the country’s highest competition authority, drafted a bill for the Australian Parliament last year requiring Facebook and Google to negotiate with media publishers and pay them for content. The legislation includes a code of conduct that enables media companies to negotiate the value of their news content individually or jointly with digital platforms.
Google and Facebook saw worrying precedent in the proposed legislation. While negotiations on the proposal continued through 2020, both companies openly said they may need to take more drastic action against it.
In August, Facebook announced that it would prevent users and news organizations in Australia from sharing local and international news on its social network and Instagram should the bill move forward. Last month, Google also threatened to make its search engine unavailable in Australia if the government approved the legislation.
Over the past few weeks, however, Google has tried to mitigate the impact of the proposed legislation through agreements with media outlets like Reuters and The Financial Times. Last year, Google announced that it would pay $ 1 billion in royalties over a three-year period to news publishers for content displayed on the Google News page and Discover, the news feed published on the mobile Search app from Google is displayed.
Most notable was Google’s agreement on Wednesday with Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp. Both have shown open hostilities to one another for years and go back to the earliest days of the search engine.
In 2009, Mr. Murdoch threatened to remove News Corp articles from Google, accusing the internet giant of stealing its content. Google has long suspected that Murdoch and News Corp may have sparked growing antitrust scrutiny, according to current and former Google executives in Washington and under attorneys general.
Under the agreement between the two companies, Google agreed to pay News Corp to use its news content without disclosing specific markets or dollar amounts.
However, according to two people familiar with the deal, the search giant has not admitted a major sticking point in previous negotiations. The agreement does not appear to specifically include payment for links and snippets of news that appear in general search results, the main source of Google’s power.
In a press release declaring victory for its “quixotic search” in getting Google to pay for news, News Corp also said the agreement would allow the development of a subscription platform and investment in video journalism by YouTube, a Google subsidiary , included.
Facebook’s decision on Wednesday was in line with earlier statements about the blocking of news links in Australia. The move could prove extremely difficult for Australians as publishers can no longer share or post content from their Facebook Pages and users can no longer see news articles shared on Facebook by overseas publishers.
Within Australia, Facebook’s news ban appeared to be arbitrary. News pages worked and then did not work, with error messages disappearing for some users and streams of posts for other users.
But at 9 a.m. in Sydney, the impact was evident and even more far-reaching than what Facebook’s statements would suggest. In addition to blocking news publishers, the pages for Fire and Rescue New South Wales, the Bureau of Meteorology, and state police departments have been deleted. Even state government sites with public health information about the pandemic have been blocked, causing outrage from many officials and lawmakers, including Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of South Australia.
In a statement, Facebook’s Easton said the social network has largely helped the media industry and that publishers could not grow their revenues in the same way without the company’s help.
“The exchange of values between Facebook and publishers benefits the publishers,” he said. “Last year, Facebook generated around 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers, valued at an estimated AU $ 407 million.”
Josh Frydenberg, the Australian federal treasurer and vice-chairman of the Liberal Party, said in a tweet that he and Mark Zuckerberg, the executive director of Facebook, had a “constructive discussion” on Wednesday.
They would continue to “try to find a way forward,” said Frydenberg.
Katie Robertson contributed to the coverage.