Pressure grows for govt to designate Facebook under bargaining code


Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government is facing increased pressure to designate Facebook under the media bargaining code, with the competition watchdog boss saying he is “concerned” about the social media giant’s current approach, and a petition on the matter garnering nearly 10,000 in just a few days.

The news media bargaining code, requiring designated companies to enter into forced arbitration to determine revenue sharing deals with media companies for the use of their content on digital platforms, was passed into law earlier this year.

The Treasurer is yet to designate any company under the code, despite it being targeted squarely at Google and Facebook.

Australia’s competition watchdog Rod SIms. Image: Twitter

Both of the tech giants have announced a number of financial deals with Australian media companies this year following the passage of the code through Parliament, meaning they have so far avoided actually being subject to the code.

But Facebook has declined to negotiate deals with a series of Australian publishers, including The Conversation and public broadcaster SBS, leading many to call for the government to designate it under the code.

The code emerged from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s digital platforms inquiry, and the competition watchdog’s chair Rod Sims now says he is “concerned” with how Facebook has approached these deals this year.

“Google has done more deals than Facebook. For example, Google has reached deals with The Conversation, SBS and other organisations that Facebook has not done deals with,” Mr Sims said.

“Google is still negotiating and finalising deals with more news media companies and seems to be approaching this exercise in the right spirit. We are concerned that Facebook does not currently seem to take the same approach.”

The federal government is set to review the code in March next year, and Mr Sims urged it to “examine closely the performance of all parties and whether the government’s expectations have been met”.

Independent media company The Conversation also launched a petition last week urging the Treasurer to designate Facebook to “support media diversity and public interest journalism”.

The petition, which has gathered more than 7000 signatures in the last week, will be tabled in Parliament next year ahead of the review of the code.

The Conversation executive director Misha Ketchell said Facebook has refused to negotiate with the company, and only designation under the code will bring them to the bargaining table.

“[Facebook} has refused to negotiate with the majority of news providers including The Conversation and many other high quality outlets that meet the criteria set out in the code and fight misinformation and inject expertise into the media ecosystem,” the petition said.

While it has not negotiated with Facebook, The Conversation has secured a deal with Google.

“This places us in a difficult position,” Mr Ketchell said.

“We don’t want to give up on reaching Facebook’s vast audience, but nor do we want to give Facebook an underserved veneer of respectability. Facebook has just announced a specific funding program designed to placate media that it refuses to negotiate with under the code. We have decided not to apply for these grants.

“Despite our reservations about the way Facebook operates, The Conversation should not be treated differently to other media outlets. We do not want to let Facebook off the hook and we need your help.”

The media company is also calling on its readers to write to their local MP and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to push for Facebook to be designated.

The mere threat of the bargaining code earlier this year led to Facebook briefly banning all news content for Australian users. The threat of this happening again shouldn’t stop the government from enforcing the code however, Mr Ketchell said.

“It’s possible that in response Facebook will threaten to remove news from its pages – again. We should not fear this. The Australian government has already shown it will not give in to bullying,” he said.

“Mark Zuckerberg’s motto used to be ‘move fast and break things’. Now the broken thing is Facebook. It’s time for us to move fast and fix it, before it does any more damage.”

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