With the amendments added in Parliament this week, the media bargaining code is a giant nothing burger. Facebook has taken that nothing burger and turned it into a global-scale dog’s breakfast.
Facebook is an awful company with a high tolerance for its own awfulness. By blocking users from accessing Australian news services, and by blocking information from critical social service delivery organisations – including government health agencies and emergency services – the company has made the already unsafe aspects of its service even less safe.
But Facebook is not a government service, and it is quite entitled to modify or change or remove entirely its product as it sees fit.
And if the company feels the best way to serve its users is to remove news and information from health agencies one week before a vaccine roll-out in the middle of a pandemic, then it is within its rights to do so.
It is also true that the social media giant has been allowed to grow as a largely unregulated way, while pushing back against any attempt by governments to make its service safer. The live-streamed Christchurch massacre shockingly comes to mind.
Facebook has now made its product less safe in Australia and accelerated the need for regulation. The last 24 hours has massively changed the calculus.
Facebook has revealed itself again, in all its awfulness. Its behaviour in Australia will galvanise the coordination of governments around the world to reign in not only Facebook, but to come to grips with what regulation looks like in the coming information age.
In Australia, if nothing else, Facebook’s actions has started a more mainstream discussion about Big Tech, about platforms, about influence and algorithms, about AI and regulation. The Facebook issues are a forerunner to the giant regulatory and policy challenges that Australia and like-minded western democracies must come to grips with.
The irony is that the media bargaining code, with the amendments that were passed this week, was a bit of a nothing burger. No company was designated under the scheme, no service was designated, no algorithms were to be handed over.
The whole process was carried out in a very Australian way. A bunch of institutional power centres – legacy media, Big Tech and government – grinding away and carving up a market.
Our Prime Minister’s transactional instincts took to parliament a ‘solution’ that was supposed to make everyone happy. Legacy media got a few bucks, Google wasn’t forced to “break the internet” and the government cleared the barnacles on this issue (and placated its power news media backer) ahead of an election later this year.
This very Australian arrangement was effectively Google, News Corp and government coming up with a formula.
Oh, the irony that Facebook is the company that drew a hard red line. It has dug its heels in on a matter of principle. It has blown the process up. No-one’s happy now.
The media bargaining code with the amendments passed this week, makes a joke of the legislations’ intent. This had been portrayed by government as – *checks notes* – our last great hope to “save journalism”.
Which is of course nonsense. The media bargaining code achieves precisely nothing in relation to journalism.
On the upside, this is a mainstream public debate that we had to have. This debate is not about journalism or news, but how we manage our governing structures so that we can deal with this technologically-driven changes to our society.
We get to decide what kind of country we want, and how we want it structured. Its not for the powerful interests of a few corporates.
It is a little bit interesting that Australia now finds itself in this position, with the world watching.