The UK government is “obviously concerned” at the repercussions of Facebook’s shutdown of large numbers of news and public information resources in Australia, Downing Street has said, confirming that the culture secretary will meet the US company this week.
Oliver Dowden is “expecting to meet Facebook this week”, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said, adding that the date had yet to be confirmed.
Facebook has faced a wave of condemnation and negative publicity after it suspended Facebook pages for government bodies, health departments and charities along with those for news sites in Australia amid a row over a new law that would force it and other platforms to pay for links to news content.
Johnson’s spokesperson said: “We are obviously concerned about access to news being restricted in Australia. As we always have done, we’ll be robust in defending free speech and journalism.”
The spokesperson was asked whether the UK could consider following suit in obliging Facebook and similar companies that make huge revenues linking to journalism to pay for this. He said the UK was setting up a unit “to promote competition in digital markets and ensure major tech companies cannot exploit a dominant market position”.
This will be established within the government’s competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), from April, with a consultation to take place on the unit’s “form and function”.
Asked whether it would look at an Australian-style system, the No 10 spokesperson said: “As part of the plans we will introduce a new statutory code of conduct that will support the sustainability of the news publishing industry, and try and help rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms.”
Facebook’s actions in Australia have been condemned as an “attack on democracy” in an open letter from dozens of prominent charities, media and campaign groups around the world.
On Monday, Microsoft announced a partnership with Europe’s publishers to develop an Australian-style system embedded in law to ensure content owners get fair payment when their news articles appear on tech sites.
The move, a timely shot across the bows of Facebook and Google, will involve Microsoft working with Europe’s four leading lobby groups for newspaper and magazine publishers, and developing a regulated system to establish fair prices and “mandate payments” for the use of content by “gatekeepers that have dominant market power”.
Fernando de Yarza, the president of News Media Europe, said: “The experiences in France and Australia have shown us that there’s a real need for a binding instrument to address inherent imbalances in bargaining power with gatekeepers, which undermine the potential of Europe’s press sector.”
In an interview with the Financial Times on Monday, Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive, said the watchdog planned to launch a series of antitrust investigations into big tech companies this year.
“Until we have these new legal powers, if we want to achieve impact for consumers in the UK, we need to use our current [tools],” he said. “There are quite a few cases against the digital platforms in Brussels today and a number of these include the UK market.”
A Facebook spokesman said: “The UK has taken a very different approach to Australia, which has allowed us to strike commercial deals with almost every major UK publisher.”
This involved the company paying tens of millions of pounds to national and local outlets to be part of the new Facebook News section. Facebook was also funding 80 trainee local reporters through its community news project, the spokesman said.