Fleet Street rethinks its relationship with Facebook and Google Business

One morning just over a year ago, Australians opening their Facebook apps woke up to a news feed with no news.

Overnight, Mark Zuckerberg’s social network blocked any reading or sharing of news stories to protest a new law forcing tech giants to strike deals with newspapers and other publishers.

Facebook said it refused on principle, insisting that the news industry gets more out of the company than the other way around, and that forcing the company to pay for news “fundamentally fails to understand how our services work”.

But if the move was a bluff designed to prove Facebook’s point, it backfired spectacularly.

The news ban has hit charities and emergency services, cutting off vital information and seemingly only serving to demonstrate what Australian politicians have always maintained: Facebook has enormous power over what the world sees.

It was also a wake-up call for the rest of the world.

Britain is now moving forward with its own plans to reduce Facebook’s ownership of the information.

Reports suggest Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, is planning a system similar to Australia’s for an independent arbitrator to step in if companies with ‘strategic market status’ fail to strike deals with editors.

However – despite pressure from across the media industry – it remains to be seen whether the proposal will make it into the Queen’s Speech this spring.

In Australia, Zuckerberg held calls across multiple time zones with ministers to address the issue, but failed to get them to change course.

Facebook quickly backtracked. After an eight-day blackout, the stories were back in the News Feed and the company said it was willing to negotiate.

Sir Nick Clegg, its political boss, later said he had “over-implemented” the decision.

Twelve months later, Facebook has entered into 11 content deals with news publishers in Australia. Google, which backtracked on a threat to pull its search engine altogether, has 19 deals.

The likes of ABC News (Australia’s BBC), Guardian Australia and Sydney Morning Herald owner Nine Entertainment say the deals have allowed them to invest more in journalism.

“A lot of people were saying you can’t really pull it off against the global digital giants,” Australian Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told Wired recently. “[But] we know it works, we can see the evidence.

In the year since Facebook’s brief showdown with Australia, the idea that tech giants should pay publishers to deliver information has become increasingly popular.

Canada is pushing ahead with its own legislation, while France is pressuring Google and Facebook to come to the negotiating table.

Last year, the Alliance Française de la Presse d’Information Générale, which represents hundreds of publishers in France, reached agreements with the two companies. The agreements could serve as models for similar agreements across the EU.

Britain is following their example. Supporters of tech companies may present the proposals as a document to Fleet Street, but ministers see them as pro-competitive, helping to redress the balance between publishers and tech giants who have a duopoly on digital advertising with around 80% of the UK market.

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This notice was published: 2022-03-04 13:45:40

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