Facebook 1, Govt 0

It’s been a big news week in Oz. The big news yesterday came after Facebook disabled the posting of content from any Australian news sites and wiped clean media pages hosted on their platform. It was a belligerent act and indiscriminate at first glance, but I’m not nearly as surprised as the public appears to be. Folks, Facebook isn’t a public service – it’s a ruthless business. It’s not here for the common good – its motives are power and profit. Why should you expect better from it?

This action by Facebook was in response to proposed legislation that meant that Facebook would have to pay for every bit of content posted there belonging to a news provider. It’s a controversial and heavy-handed policy that seeks to compensate news providers for their IP shared online. It makes some sense when it comes to Google, who were the other organisation targeted. It makes less sense when it comes to Facebook.

As the fall-out from yesterday’s actions show, Facebook is an integral part of the Australian media landscape, like it or not. God knows how many take their primary news from social media – too many – but in removing this, many misinformed Australians will now also be ignorant. (Not me – I take my news from the source). More starkly, the news organisations that are meant to benefit from this legislation rely on Facebook to promote and publicise their content and drive traffic to their sites. Why else does every news site I’ve set eyes on have a post to Facebook button on their pages?

This is the hypocrisy of this legislation, which Facebook has rejected – they’re being asked to pay for something that these media organisations freely use to share their content. The government said you’ll have to pay for this content from here on in and Facebook has turned around and basically said fuck you, and pre-emptively blocked that content. For the government to then turn around and basically say hang on a sec is pretty stupid because Facebook is only reacting to the government’s threat.

You can hardly blame them. They don’t care about the average Aussie punter. By world standards, we’re a small market, and to agree to such legislation would be a damaging precedent. They can’t afford to agree to it.

There was predictable uproar yesterday and all sorts of hyperbole about how Facebook was a dictator, and this was a threat to democracy, and so on. Let me make it clear, I’m no supporter of Facebook. I think they’re a dangerous and arrogant organisation who seek to manipulate, all the while data mining from the people who use it for their own dastardly, greedy ends. They need to be regulated, but I suspect that’s a bigger job than little ol’ Australia can manage by itself.

This is dumb legislation and its backfired on the government. He deserves to as well because the whole purpose of it was to help out its media mates – News Corp particularly. It’s grubby work done by a grubby government and characteristically slapdash – but we’ll come to that.

The outrage yesterday would have been less but for the fact that many harmless, public service and charity oriented organisations were affected by this blocking. Facebook has admitted that some of that was in error and have reinstated some sites. But, let’s be fair, the legislation as drawn up by the government is so broad that what constitutes a ‘news’ site that it’s no wonder that Facebook took a cautious view of it: if in doubt, block it.

I don’t know what upsets me more about this government, the brazen corruption or the effortless incompetence. We know everything they do is political and as part of that they’ll look after their mates – but if you’re going to do it, do it with some finesses and intelligence. Not this government.

Unfortunately, most of the news sites affected in this imbroglio won’t hold the government to account – why would they? I can live without them, to be honest. Caught up in this, though, are the smaller, independent news services which are all that’s left investigating the government’s sharp practices. Many of them run on a shoestring and rely on every media channel to get their message across and support.

Interesting to see how this plays out. Initially, I thought the government would have to back down and modify its demands. But now, this threatens to become a test case, regardless of its merits. The world is watching as Australia takes on Facebook.

If the government was fair dinkum, they’d ditch this legislation and go at it the old-fashioned way, through taxation. I know it’s bloody tricky, yada, yada, yada, but so is this, and taxation, at least, would be fair and would benefit the broader Australian taxpayer, not the media moguls. And, Facebook is due to pay more tax – and Google too.

Won’t happen. What happens will be interesting to see, but I can’t see Zuckerberg backing down in any substantive way.

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