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Toys out of the cot: Facebook dumps Aussie news in response to media code

Business

Facebook has followed through on its threat to ban Australians sharing news on its platform in response to a proposed media bargaining code.

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Australian users and publishers will be restricted from viewing or sharing domestic and international news.

Overseas users also will be unable to access Australian news content.

Facebook has also blocked important government information pages including the weather bureau, health departments and police agencies.

The social media giant claims it has been left with no choice.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” the company said in a statement on Thursday.

“It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia.

“With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg described Facebook’s actions as wrong, unnecessary and heavy-handed, predicting it would damage the social media giant’s reputation in Australia.

Frydenberg spoke with Facebook this morning and said he would “see if we can reach some clarifications and get them back to the table and keep them providing their service here in Australia”.

“Only time will tell,” he said.

But Frydenberg was adamant the government’s new media bargaining code was vital economic reform and worth fighting for. He repeatedly commended Google for pre-emptively doing deals with media companies, while suggesting Facebook had acted prematurely and without understanding the code.

“We’ve stood up to the digital giants so far,” Frydenberg said.

“I took their threats pretty seriously, but we didn’t budge, the Prime Minister didn’t budge. The Australian government makes rules for Australia.”

Google and Facebook are understood to be concerned that Australia might set a precedent and Frydenberg acknowledged “the eyes of the world are watching what’s happening here in Australia in real time”.

Facebook first made the threat to ban news for Australians in August and repeated the ultimatum before a Senate inquiry in January. But it gave the government no prior warning of today’s move.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the government would not back down to Facebook after it restricted Australian access to news.

“Facebook needs to think very carefully about what this means for its reputation and standing,” Fletcher said.

Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus is demanding the government resolve the dispute.

“Facebook is going to dramatically alter the feed that Australians get and restrict the flow of news to Australians, the flow of real public-interest journalism and real news to Australians on Facebook,” he said.

“The question is one for the government to answer instead of patting yourselves on the back. Tell Australians what’s going on with Facebook. It’s something that 18 million or so Australians are affected by.”

As Facebook restricts the sharing of news, Google is striking deals in Australia to pay for journalism.

News Corp has become the latest publisher to sign a lucrative agreement with Google.

The internet giant has already struck deals with Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment, and is in talks with public broadcasters ABC and SBS, as well as Guardian Australia.

The three-year Google deal with News Corp goes beyond the Australian market, extending to the publisher’s titles in America and the UK.

No other news publisher has reached a single deal with Google across multiple countries.

The media bargaining code is before the Senate after clearing the House of Representatives overnight.

The legislation, which has bipartisan support, will give the treasurer power to choose which companies are subject to it.

Under the code, a panel – decided by the negotiating parties or the media watchdog – would hear offers and make a decision on payment for news content.

Facebook executive Campbell Brown denied the social media giant stole news content.

“Publishers choose to share their stories on Facebook,” he said.

“From finding new readers to getting new subscribers and driving revenue, news organisations wouldn’t use Facebook if it didn’t help their bottom lines.”

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