The Politics    Thursday, February 18, 2021

Slow news day

By Rachel Withers

Australia called Facebook’s bluff. It wasn’t bluffing.

Today’s news ­– in case you only get your news through Facebook and this email – has been dominated by Facebook, which this morning followed through on its threat to block news from its platform in Australia if the government went ahead with its news media bargaining code. It was a threat put in writing but one that many seemed to have forgotten about, with all eyes on Google’s more recent and arguably more serious threat to remove its search engine entirely, and the deals Google was inking with Australian publishers in the lead-up to the code’s passing (it struck one with News Corp this morning, though it’s believed to be much smaller than News Corp wanted). Facebook made little effort to strike deals with media outlets, and, to the surprise of many, did exactly what it said it would do, following the passage of the code in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support last night.

The ban goes even further than expected. Facebook has blocked Australians from accessing or sharing any news content, even from overseas publishers, and it has blocked people across the world from accessing or sharing Australian news. But what’s especially disconcerting is its removal of posts from non-news organisations, including major health, corporate, sporting and charity pages. The decisions seem rather arbitrary, with Facebook deplatforming the WA Opposition leader but not the premier, just weeks out from a state election. (And as if this week wasn’t sexist enough, the AFL survived the block, but the AFLW did not.)

Experts are slamming the removal of health-related news during the pandemic, with the block striking down SA Health, ACT Health and Queensland Health. It risks undermining public health messaging just days before the vaccine rollout is set to begin, with leaders appealing to Facebook to reinstate the flow of health news as soon as possible. It’s a good thing Facebook suspended Craig Kelly (temporarily) yesterday. Facebook has since admitted some of these blocks were a mistake, and is working to reverse them, including the one on the Bureau of Meteorology.

Figures in Canberra and the mainstream media have condemned Facebook’s decision, with serious concerns over what this will mean for misinformation on the platform. But much of this condemnation seems to ignore the fact that Facebook had made its position clear. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – who has been the one dealing with the big tech firms, reportedly speaking regularly to Mark Zuckerberg – has spent the past weeks expressing confidence that an agreement would be reached, and yesterday declared victory following the passage of the code. What did the one Australian who has been in regular discussion with Facebook think was going to happen next? Why didn’t he see it coming? Labor has taken aim at the Coalition over the ban, with shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland saying Facebook’s decision is the fault of the government. They seem to be forgetting about the part where they voted for the code too – though, admittedly, Frydenberg said he had this under control. Labor probably should have checked that a little more closely.

Canberra has collectively screwed up here, but the major parties are not quite ready to acknowledge it. Frydenberg says he spoke to Zuckerberg about the ban for half an hour this morning, and they are trying to “work the issues through”, though he remains committed to making the tech giant pay for journalism. In a press conference, the treasurer said Facebook was “wrong”, while thanking Google for its “very constructive discussions”. “Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Frydenberg said. (The Facebook live feed of his press conference stopped working midway through, apparently).

Other government ministers have been out cajoling and pleading with Facebook to undo the blocks: Health Minister Greg Hunt is concerned about the risk of misinformation in the gaps left by Facebook, saying it should “forget the money” (an ironic call) and think of its community, while Communications Minister Paul Fletcher wants it to think of its reputation. Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Frydenberg has insisted Zuckerberg didn’t give him any notice Facebook was going to do this, in their conversations on Sunday, suggesting the tech company saw the passage of the legislation through the House of Reps last night and misinterpreted some of the provisions. But Facebook has been giving notice of its intent since August 2020. Facebook is putting into practice the argument it’s been making against the code since the start: Australian news organisations need it more than it needs them. And it’s probably right.

“The young couple who win the auction end up paying more, have less super and probably a bigger mortgage.”

Opposition housing spokesperson Jason Clare has slammed Liberal MP Tim Wilson’s “Home First Super Second” campaign, arguing it would drive up house prices, in Labor’s strongest comments on the proposal to date.

“It is highly confusing, difficult to interpret and lacks the flexibility that small businesses need.”

One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts wants industrial relations changes even more extreme than the government’s, calling for legislation to simplify small business awards, while making it easier for businesses to sack workers and defend against unfair dismissal.

Tanya Plibersek: Labor after COVID-19
As Labor prepares for a possible early election, Tanya Plibersek says the party is ready to confront the government over shortcomings in its handling of the pandemic.

Australia’s unemployment rate in January, down 0.2 percentage points, despite recent state-based COVID-19 lockdowns.

“The Business Council has jumped on a little-reported section of the government’s industrial relations reforms to call for the scrapping of hefty ‘contrition’ penalties for employers who inadvertently underpay workers.”


Employers have backed reforms to scrap “contrition” fines, potentially saving corporations millions of dollars.

The list

Minari is drenched in the kind of honeyed hue that evokes the lightness of memory, elevating ordinary events to nostalgic signifiers of an ‘easier’ time, where people were unburdened by current pressures. It helps, too, that Chung and cinematographer Lachlan Milne wield a Malick-esque reverence for the bucolic. The haloed glow around blades of grass shivering in the breeze, or an insect buzzing in dappled sunlight can often approach something like the divine – their 50-acre plot is a ‘Garden of Eden’, Jacob says.”

“While Facebook, Google and ‘the internet’ may be responsible for the collapse of the traditional media business, blaming them is like holding a shark responsible for biting. Technology was always going to reveal mass-market advertising as a blunt instrument. Printing every single advertisement for a second-hand car, and attempting to distribute this to every single person in the market, may have seemed great at the time, but time makes fools of all of us, especially if we’re Fairfax executives. Spraying ads for holidays to Fiji across the media was never going to be as effective as simply catching those who googled ‘flights to Fiji’.”

“What do Australians profess to love about their sports stars? Confidence, a healthy disrespect of authority and an everyman appeal. They’re the characteristics that helped Shane Warne overcome multiple affairs and a drug suspension to become a living legend and one of the highest-paid cricket commentators in the country. They’re the traits that help football players accused of sexual assault maintain the backing of their clubs. But when it comes to Kyrgios, who has been accused of none of the above, they’re interpreted very differently.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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