Tuesday late in the afternoon, Sydney time, Facebook announced that it would restore access to news on its platform in Australia. But upon logging in five days after her surprise ban, there was still no news. We cannot share it. We can’t see it.
It will be back soon, we are told, but for now when I log into Facebook, this is what I see:
A friend from London took a photo of blooming crocuses in a field. Someone in my neighborhood sells an Ikea table and two chairs for $ 100. Someone else nearby is selling a baby carrier for $ 50. A roommate from my college studies went out with friends on the weekend and took a picture. My Mom’s Best Friend Loves a Gordon Ramsay Pickup Lines Video. A man I met on vacation in Turkey wishes a happy birthday to a friend I met in Lisbon. My local cafe has expanded their line of homemade lemonades. And my high school drama teacher bought loads of vintage furniture and home items.
Facebook without news is different.
Last Thursday morning local time in the midst of a global pandemic and before the national election, millions of Australians woke up to find their Facebook feeds so altered. The move, Facebook said, was one made with a “heavy heart” before the federal government put its code of media negotiation, which aims to make Google and Facebook negotiate payment with news publishers in exchange for their content, for a vote in the upper house.
At the heart of the Australian decision is the argument that news publishers and platforms benefit from content shared on Facebook and Google. But since tech giants are essentially gatekeepers of the Internet, news publishers are unable to negotiate with them what might be a fair price for their content. Australia argues that this code corrects this imbalance.
Now the government has made seemingly minor concessions to its law. The news is coming back. But Facebook has made it clear: it can, and still can, take news.
When we first discovered our news feeds devoid of news last week – with Guardian Australia-owned Facebook pages gutted and with a gray, bold claim that there weren’t any posts yet – a broad feeling of disbelief erupted and indignation. The tech giant not only blocked the news, but apparently unintentionally blocked many other news pages, including the National Meteorological Office that issues emergency weather alerts, government health departments, charities and the Facebook page of a leader of the state opposition a few weeks before the elections. The Australian Medical Association still on hold on Monday returned to Twitter to pleadd “Hey @ facebook – we are not a media company, we are doctors and this is a pandemic – how about restoring our content?”
My own feed became full of friends stating that Facebook instantly got boring and businesses were trying to sell me stuff, or as a friend in Melbourne put it: “a no-fuss wasteland populated with boomer memes and pictures of dogs. ” I instantly began to regret almost every Facebook group I had joined. And I don’t know why I voluntarily chose to like a business page.
And now, as Australians drown in 30-second captioned dog photos and social media videos, the news will return to Australia. Its good. But we know it’s not over yet.
Australia likes to think of itself as a nation that does not tolerate bullies. A nation for which the words “equity” or “fair-go” have the cultural and political power that “liberty” or “liberty” can have in the United States. Australia is also well aware that all eyes are now on it, that this is a global test. The Australian government will move forward with this legislation. And even with this latest compromise, we could lose news again.
This threat hangs over us now, and the experience has left a bitter taste. By suspending unilaterally, without warning, Facebook News has demonstrated precisely the type of monopoly power that the Australian government seeks to control. Australian users and news organizations know that Facebook could turn off the taps once again and for good, and that this threat and experience alone could fundamentally change the way they see and interact with the platform, even after the news is restored.
Facebook has made its power felt on smartphones and newsrooms in this country. With this turnaround, we will no longer be able to know if the news can survive without Facebook, and vice versa. In other words, unless it happens again.
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