Facebook’s Northern Europe vice president has claimed that proposed Australian legislation compelling tech giants to pay for journalism would have made it nearly “impossible” for the platform to operate.
Steve Hatch said the draft law, which sought for digital businesses to reach paid-for-news agreements with media companies, had “deeply challenged” Facebook’s existing relationship with news providers.
The social media giant sparked international condemnation and alarm last week with its decision to block all news on its Australian platform, after Canberra’s House of Representatives passed a draft version of the bill.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Facebook had “unfriended” the country, and the blackout also cut access — at least temporarily — to government pandemic, public health and emergency services, fuelling outrage.
On Tuesday the firm announced it would be lifting the ban after striking a deal with the Australian government over amendments to the proposed legislation.
In an exclusive video interview with the Evening Standard, Mr Hatch said that Facebook was “really pleased to be in a position where we’re able to re-establish the provision of use.
“I want to be really clear, that it was not a decision we wanted to take at all but we really didn’t feel we had a choice at that moment,” he said.
“Now everybody has been at the negotiating and conversation table and it’s great that we’re able to get into a position where we can move forward.”
Mr Hatch, who was previously Facebook’s UK and Ireland regional director, said that publishers choose what they post on the platform.
“So it’s always their decision, how and when they post content, and of course that drives a considerable audience for free, and that basis was deeply challenged by the proposed legislation,” he said.
“It was really around the challenge that we saw in the legislation in particular, which was effectively forcing us into a position where it will be almost impossible for us to operate.”
The legislation was designed to curb Facebook and Google’s outsized bargaining power in their negotiations with Australian news providers, establishing a code that would require fair payment for content.
In the case of a standoff, an arbitration panel would make a binding decision on a winning offer.
Under the amendments negotiated by Facebook and the Australian government, digital platforms will get month’s notice before they are formally designated under the code, giving those those involved more time to broker agreements.
Josh Frydenberg, the Australian Treasurer, said that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg had told him the ban would end within days, telling reporters: “Facebook has re-friended Australia.”
But the company’s global VP for partnerships, Campbell Brown, suggested that Facebook could pull news from Australia again.
“Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.”
The row has raised questions over whether similar legislation could be introduced in the UK. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden was reportedly expected to meet with Facebook’s executives this week.
Mr Hatch said the UK has taken “quite a different approach”, pointing to the launch of Facebook News in January and commercial deals with various publishers including Archant, ESI Media, The Economist and Sky News.
He insisted that Facebook News, a destination within the app that features news segments from numerous publishers, had “proven really good for people, really good for publishers and really good for journalism”.
“There is a commercial relationship where Facebook pays for that content that exists within Facebook news,” said Mr Hatch.
“It launched originally in the US and its proven really good for people, really good for publishers and really good for journalism.
“I really do believe that there can be a strong coexistence amongst publishers and platforms, particularly if everybody is encouraging the level of innovation that is taking place right now.”
In the video interview, Mr Hatch also shared his thoughts on Facebook shop and the platform’s role during the coronavirus pandemic.