Facebook threatens to block Australians from sharing news in battle over media law

Facebook will block Australians from sharing news if a landmark plan to make digital platforms pay for news content becomes law, the digital giant has warned.

The sharing of personal content between family and friends will not be affected and neither will the sharing of news by Facebook users outside of Australia, the social network said.

The mandatory news code has been backed by all the major media companies including News Corp Australia, Nine Entertainment and Guardian Australia, as a way to offset the damage caused by the loss of advertising revenue to Facebook and Google.

“Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram,” the managing director of Facebook Australia & New Zealand Will Easton said in a blog post on Tuesday.

“This is not our first choice – it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the government would continue with the legislation and did not respond to “coercion or heavy-handed threats”.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Rod Sims said Facebook’s threat was ill-timed and misconceived.

“The draft media bargaining code aims to ensure Australian news businesses, including independent, community and regional media, can get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google,” Sims said.

“Facebook already pays some media for news content. The code simply aims to bring fairness and transparency to Facebook and Google’s relationships with Australian news media businesses.

“We note that according to the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report, 39% of Australians use Facebook for general news, and 49% use Facebook for news about COVID-19.

“As the ACCC and the Government work to finalise the draft legislation, we hope all parties will engage in constructive discussions.”

Tuesday’s statement marked the company’s first comment since Google also took an aggressive approach to the looming legislation, although the search giant has stopped short of saying it would block search functions in Australia.

The director of the the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, Peter Lewis, said Facebook is prepared to remove trusted journalism from its site but will allow disinformation and conspiracy theories to flourish.

“As a big advertising company, Facebook would do well to realise its success is only as strong as its network of users,” Lewis said.

“Bullying their elected representatives seems a strange way to build long-term trust.

The announcement blindsided Australian media following a long silence from Facebook in Australia. Facebook chose to brief American journalists ahead of the release of the news about the ban, while ignoring Australian media.