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Facebook admits snap Australian news ban ‘erred on over-enforcement’ as media code passes parliament

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Facebook has admitted it “erred on the side of over-enforcement” when it abruptly moved to block publishers and users in Australia from sharing or viewing news content, but defended its initial opposition to the government’s media bargaining code.

It comes as amended legislation for the world-first code clears federal parliament.

The government’s bill received the final tick of approval on Thursday when parliament’s lower house agreed to changes, which were made after negotiations with Facebook.

Facebook’s ban last week saw some non-news pages including domestic violence support services, government health bodies and emergency services briefly blocked. 

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In a blog post titled ‘The Real Story of What Happened With News on Facebook in Australia’ on Wednesday night (AEDT), the tech giant said the snap decision to block news sharing “wasn’t taken lightly”.

“But when it came, we had to take action quickly because it was legally necessary to do so before the new law came into force, and so we erred on the side of over-enforcement,” Nick Clegg, a former UK deputy prime minister who is now Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs and communications, wrote in the post.

“In doing so, some content was blocked inadvertently. Much of this was, thankfully, reversed quickly.”

Sir Nick said while the decision may have appeared to come out of the blue, that wasn’t the case.

“We’ve been in discussions with the Australian government for three years trying to explain why this proposed law, unamended, was unworkable,” he said.

Sir Nick said that while it was “understandable” that some news publishers “see Facebook as a potential source of money to make up for their losses”, it would not have been fair to be able to demand a “blank cheque”.

“Facebook would have been forced to pay potentially unlimited amounts of money to multinational media conglomerates under an arbitration system that deliberately misdescribes the relationship between publishers and Facebook – without even so much as a guarantee that it is used to pay for journalism, let alone support smaller publishers.”

He argued it was “like forcing carmakers to fund radio stations because people might listen to them in the car, and letting the stations set the price”.

Meanwhile, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims is confident the heavily amended code will still curtail the immense market power of digital platforms.

“Google and Facebook need media but they don’t need any particular company and that (previously) meant media companies couldn’t do commercial deals with Facebook or Google,” he told ABC radio on Thursday.

“The purpose of the code is to give them the potential for arbitration, which helps their bargaining position, and therefore helps them reach fair commercial deals.”

Both Google and Facebook signed deals with major Australian news companies before the negotiating rules were enshrined in law.

So far, large media organisations including News Corp and Nine have been the main beneficiaries of deals struck.

“In any situation like this you would expect deals to be done with the bigger players first and then work down the list,” Mr Sims said.

“Given this is supporting journalism, it’s naturally going to see more money going to those who’ve got the most journalists but I don’t see any reason why anybody should doubt that all journalism will benefit.”

Mr Sims expects the online giants to seal deals with smaller players in time.

“I just don’t see why Google and Facebook would leave them out,” he said.

“I couldn’t see why you wouldn’t do deals with them, given it’s not going to cost you that much compared to what it’s going to cost for those that employ the vast bulk of journalists.”

With AAP.

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