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Australia-Facebook face-off to have lasting impact on media everywhere

What’s happening in Australia could become an expensive precedent for Facebook.

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MUMBAI: In what could have far reaching repercussions on the way big tech companies conduct business worldwide, the Australian government has decided to push on with its proposed legislation on media bargaining code.

This was reaffirmed by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison on Friday as he launched a blistering attack on Facebook’s blackout of news in Australia. “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” he said in a social media post.

Morrison asserted that his government will not be intimidated by “the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them. (sic)”

He also said that a number of countries supported his government on the matter, including the UK, Canada, France and India. "People are looking at what Australia is doing," he said, adding that he has already discussed the situation with Indian PM Narendra Modi. The development comes at a time when India too, is mulling tighter norms to regulate social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook.

In an unprecedented move, Facebook on Thursday blocked all news outlets, including some pages belonging to government websites, for its users in Australia. Users outside Australia too could not access any Australian news pages on Facebook. It later restored some government pages, terming it as an inadvertent accident caused by the “broad definition of news” under the proposed law.

The surprisingly retaliatory move from Facebook came after Australia announced its news media bargaining code, which would force Facebook and Google to negotiate payment terms with Australian news outlets for their content. Both tech giants have opposed this legislation tooth and nail, with the latter even threatening to shut down its search engine in Australia if the laws took effect.

The lower house of the Australian parliament has already passed the legislation paving the way for the senate to pass it into law.

In an apparent climb-down, Google announced a host of pre-emptive licencing deals over the past week, including a multi-year partnership with News Corp to provide journalism from its news sites around the world in return for significant payments from the search giant.

By blocking Australians’ access to news on its platform, Facebook has not only further escalated the fight with the Australian government over whether powerful tech companies should have to pay news organisations for content, but also invited widespread disapproval from elsewhere.

The social networking giant fears that what’s happening in Australia will become an expensive precedent for it as other countries’ governments contemplate revamping laws to keep up with the fast changing digital world.

Facebook’s move had an immediate impact on web traffic to Australian news sites, which dropped significantly. It also led to concerns of a surge in misinformation and spread of fake news due to inaccessibility of credible news sources.

The developments in Australia are being keenly watched world over as the law is expected to be passed by the Australian senate within the next week. This could force Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with Australian publishers or face compulsory arbitration. This could set the ball rolling for bringing in legislation to rein in the tech giants and the control they wield over the market in many other countries, including India.

Europe, US and UK have also filed anti-trust motions seeking to break the social networking giants’ monopolistic practices. Canada has indicated that it would adopt the Australian approach as it crafts its own legislation in coming months.

Meanwhile in India, the ministry of electronics and information technology is looking to tweak certain sections of the Information Technology (IT) Act to make social media intermediaries, such as Facebook and Twitter, and OTT platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, more accountable for the content shared through their platforms.

A decision in this regard has been finalised and may be announced by the government as soon as next week, the Indian Express reported quoting senior government officials.

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