CANBERRA (AUSTRALIA) – After tense negotiations pushed Facebook to cut off news in the country last week, Australia offered a host of technical concessions and the social media giant said it would restore news as the revamped bill looked set to become law this week.
The architect of Australia’s laws which was designed to force Google and Facebook to pay media companies for content claimed victory on Wednesday though critics said last-minute changes to appease Facebook sided with Big Tech over smaller news outlets.
Even though Facebook said its concerns had been met and opposition lawmakers warned that smaller media players may be overlooked, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chair Rod Sims said the bargaining power imbalance had been righted.
“The changes the government’s done are things that either don’t matter much or are just to clarify things that, at least in Facebook’s mind, were unclear,” Sims, who helped draft the original laws, told media.
“Whatever they say, they need news. It keeps people on their platform longer. They make more money,” he said.
The endorsement from Australia’s top antitrust regulator will boost the government’s argument that its hardline approach worked and may offer encouragement to countries such as Canada and Britain which have said they plan similar laws.
Other countries have introduced legislation forcing so-called Big Tech players to negotiate with media companies for licencing fees for links that draw traffic, and advertising revenue, to their platforms.
However, Australia will be the first country where a government arbitrator effectively sets the rates tech giants will have to pay if negotiations with media companies fail.
The last-minute changes include an extra two-month mediation period between any failed talks and state intervention and give the government discretion to release Facebook from the process if it proves it has made a “significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry”.
Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, Campbell Brown, said in a blogpost that the changes confirmed the US company could decide which news, if any, appeared on its platform and that it could avoid forced arbitration.
But Sims said Facebook was always free to stop offering news – and had also been free to cut deals to avoid intervention.
“This isn’t a must-carry regime,” he said. “We never said we’re forcing Facebook to keep showing news.”
“The big (media) players could successfully negotiate with Facebook or Google. The minister then doesn’t designate them, and all the little players miss out,” independent senator Rex Patrick, who opposed the amended legislation, told media.
Lee O’Connor, owner and editor of regional newspaper The Coonamble Times, said the changes appeared to weaken safeguards for smaller players.
“It’s the vagueness of the language that’s the main concern, and the minister’s discretion is part of that,” O’Connor said.
Antitrust regulator Sims dismissed the concerns.
“If Google and Facebook don’t do deals with even the smaller players, my view is they’ll get designated (as subject to intervention),” he said.
If Google and Facebook did deals with all Australia’s major outlets, which account for up to 90% of the country’s media content, “why the hell would they muck it all up and not do the other 10%? It makes no sense,” Sims said.