Facebook's capitulation in Australia is the beginning of the project to regulate Big Tech – not the end

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Peter Lewis

The social network’s hostile attack on Australian users reinforces the need to tackle the monopoly power of tech giants

Facebook will restore news to Australian pages 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.
Facebook will restore news to Australian pages 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. Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters
Facebook will restore news to Australian pages 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. Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

Last modified on Tue 23 Feb 2021 03.48 EST

Over the past few days Australians have gotten a flavour of what a global tech power will do to avoid regulation.

Now we are getting an idea of what a world-class capitulation looks like after Facebook agreed to re-friend Australia after securing what appears to be technical changes to legislation it had been determined to skewer.

When Facebook hit the nuclear button last week and took out not just news pages, but civil society, government, public health and even domestic violence sites, it had been wanting to send the world the message: Don’t mess with us.

The message received was very different: We are bullies who are prepared to treat our users as pawns in our commercial games. With global pushback to Facebook’s hostile attack on Australian users, and its news purge drawing condemnation, it was time to sue for peace.

A week ago, Facebook was telling media companies they would not do any deal if the news media bargaining code became law. Now it appears to accept the right of Australia’s elected representatives to set the rules.

The amendments it has secured extend the notice period before Facebook would be subject to the code, which is designed to address monopoly power by forcing the social media giant to fund public interest journalism.

Whether or not they will be designated to the code, that prospect is now live and set to be embedded in Australian law.

Who knows if there are other commitments in the multiple calls between Mark Zuckerberg and the treasurer? Like too much of this process, public interest negotiations have gone on behind closed doors.

What we do know is that the first step in the broader digital platform process laid out by competition commission chair Rod Sims will become law and Facebook and Google will comply with its provisions after threatening to pack up and go back to Silicon Valley.

There are still issues to be resolved. While the major publishers have secured payment form Google, the plight of small publishers earning over $150,000 per annum needs to be finalised.

It appears the treasurer will use his discretion to bring the platforms into the code as leverage to ensure these negotiations are continued – but pressure will need to be maintained.

The 12-month review of the code and ongoing oversight by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will also be critical in ensuring that money paid actually goes to journalists and not shareholders.

There will also be a critical test of the resolve of government and media to support the balance of the Sims reform program: a timely review of consumer data privacy, consideration of the creepy world of ad-tech and pushing the tech platforms to toughen up their handling of misinformation and disinformation.

For Facebook and Google, the message is clear: this is the beginning of the project to regulate Big Tech in the public interest and not the end.

Meanwhile, this whole episode should give Australians pause to reflect on our overreliance on Facebook to connect with each other. In recent days, I’ve been reminded of how reliant the progressive movement in particular is on the platform in building and running their advocacy and fundraising campaigns.

To make democracy stronger we need to imagine our own networks – not outsource it to global advertising monopolies.

The whole point of the ACCC’s platform reform agenda is to address the monopoly power of the big tech companies and their behaviour. The past week has just reinforced why this work is so important.