Facebook reverses Australia news ban after government makes media code amendments

Amanda Meade, Josh Taylor and Daniel Hurst
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Facebook will restore news to Australian pages in the next few days after the government agreed to change its landmark media bargaining code that would force the social network and Google to pay for displaying news content.

Last week, Facebook blocked all news on its platform in Australia, and inadvertently blocked information and government pages, including health and emergency services.

The ban on news created shockwaves, with the action viewed as a direct message to the rest of the world against embarking on similar regulation of the technology giant.

The historic banning of news on Australian pages came during escalating tensions over legislation that would force the tech giants to negotiate a fair payment with news publishers for using their content.

The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and communications minister Paul Fletcher announced on Tuesday a compromise had been reached at the 11th hour as the legislation was being debated in the Senate.

Related: No 10 'concerned' about Facebook news shutdown in Australia

The changes mean the government may not apply the code to Facebook if the company can demonstrate it has signed enough deals with media outlets to pay them for content. The government has also agreed that Facebook and other platforms which would be subject to the code would be given a month’s notice to comply.

Facebook’s Australian managing director, Will Easton, confirmed news would be restored in Facebook newsfeeds in Australia “in the coming days” following the agreement with the government over changing the code.

“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to reach an agreement with the Australian government and appreciate the constructive discussions we’ve had with treasurer Frydenberg and minister Fletcher over the past week,” he said in a blog post.

“After further discussions, we are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognise the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”

If the government were to later decide to apply the code to Facebook, the company’s global VP for partnerships, Campbell Brown, on Tuesday indicated the company 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.”

News publishers would not expect to get similar deals under the changes, meaning smaller publishers could get more per article, without larger publishers being able to trigger non-differentiation clauses in the legislation to demand a better deal.

“Importantly, the amendments will strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers in obtaining appropriate remuneration for the use of their content by the digital platforms,” Frydenberg said.

Frydenberg said Facebook was “pretty well advanced” in negotiating deals with a number of media companies. He said Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg had told him the company had now re-engaged in negotiations with media outlets.

Frydenberg said Australia had been a “proxy battle” for the rest of the world on the regulation of Google and Facebook.

“I have no doubt that so many other countries are looking at what is happening here in Australia, because of this innovative code the Morrison government is now pursuing, so Facebook and Google have not hidden the fact that they know that the eyes of the world are on Australia, and that is why they have sought to get a code here that is workable,” he said.

Related: Why Facebook blocked news in Australia, and what comes next

Australia’s biggest locally-owned media company, Nine Entertainment, welcomed the amendments and said it looked forward to resuming talks with Facebook about a commercial arrangement.

“We are pleased the government has found a compromise on the digital code legislation to move Facebook back into the negotiations with Australian media organisations,” a Nine spokesman said.

Nine had rejected all of Facebook’s offers because they were voided if the media code became law.

The director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology Peter Lewis said on face value it seemed the integrity of the code remained.

“This whole episode should give Australians pause to reflect on our over reliance on Facebook to connect with each other,” Lewis said.

The government said under the changes:

• A decision to designate a platform under the code must take into account whether a digital platform has made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with news media businesses.

• A digital platform will be notified of the government’s intention to designate prior to any final decision – noting that a final decision on whether or not to designate a digital platform would be made no sooner than one month from the date of notification.

• Non-differentiation provisions will not be triggered because commercial agreements resulted in different remuneration amounts or commercial outcomes that arose in the course of usual business practices.

• Final offer arbitration is a last resort where commercial deals cannot be reached by requiring mediation, in good faith, to occur prior to arbitration for no longer than two months.