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Australia Passes Law Making Google and Facebook Pay for News

Patrick Frater
·3-min read

Australia’s parliament on Thursday passed the last elements of the controversial new law that will require major tech firms to pay local publishers for news.

Amendments earlier this week brought to an end a standoff between the Australian government and Facebook, which last week took the dramatic move of disabling Australian users’ ability to share news articles.

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The compromises, which both the government and Facebook have claimed as a victory, include a longer period until the News Media Bargaining Code bites. That gives platforms such as Facebook and Google a further month to negotiate deals with publishers before any disagreement on payment terms is sent to an arbitrator for decision.

Another concession gives the government discretion to release the tech giants from mandatory arbitration, if the tech firms can prove that they have made a “significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry.”

“The code will ensure news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate, helping to sustain public interest journalism,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said in a joint statement. Frydenberg also said that he expects Facebook to reverse its eight-day unfriending of Australia by Friday.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of global affairs, Wednesday, went to great pains in a blog posting to explain why Australian law was wrongheaded, and why, had it remained un-amended, the social media would have kept up its siege.

He also admitted that in blocking out weather reports, charities and social providers, Facebook had “erred on the side of over-enforcement” and that, as a result, “some content was blocked inadvertently.”

Google has already completed deals with News Corp. and Seven Media, and negotiations with other media including the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation are known to be under way. Facebook is now expected to follow suit and speed up its own deal talks.

As finance minister, Fydenberg has the power to “designate” digital platforms if he decides that there is an imbalance of power in a relationship between platform and publisher. For that to happen, he must first give the platform a 30-day notice period. It must then start negotiating or face first mediation, and ultimately compulsory arbitration.

“Ideally what we’ll see, and what the Treasurer thinks he’s going to see, is over the next month Facebook will come out with a flurry of deals with media companies to prove to the government they are serious in their intent to provide an income to media outlets in Australia,” Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer in media at Australia’s Swinburne University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “If they don’t, then the Treasurer could designate Facebook and what will happen, of course, is Facebook will promptly shut off news again.”

Governments in other countries are known to be considering similar legislation and will be watching the Australian situation as a test case.

“Facebook’s actions in Australia should be viewed as a global policy change affecting all people around the world, not just Australia,” said social media expert and Syracuse University assistant professor Jennifer Grygiel said. “(Facebook boss, Mark) Zuckerberg’s flex here shows how he can disrupt global access to the news in a heartbeat. It also shows how he is able to suppress the news related to this policy too. No company should have this much influence over access to journalism. Publishers and governments need to work to establish independence from Facebook.”

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