Waking up to Facebook’s “Zucker” punch on February 18 in the latest round of the fight between old and new media capital over the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021 on February 18 was something.
With the flick of a switch, Mark Zuckerberg blocked the sharing of external links to news articles on Facebook in Australia and disabled swathes of pages, including the Bureau of Meteorology and COVID-19 health pages (despite the pandemic) as well as unions and MPs across the political spectrum.
Then, a game of Whac-A-Mole ensued but with the various attempts to get around the block being snuffed out as soon as they started gaining traction.
Probably, Zuckerberg’s phone chat with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg did not go down well.
I’d probably be pretty pissed too after a meeting with Frydenberg. But, like you, I don’t have the power to disable large swathes of one of Australia’s most popular platforms to share information and connect with people, services and organisations. There was zero consolation, just as there is zero accountability
But Facebook’s anti-democratic Zuckering should not take away from the fact that the proposed new bargaining code is a bad bill and the mainstream debate about it does not help in winning a democratic fourth estate.
It is being framed as Facebook refusing to pay for news it profits from. Greens leader Adam Bandt said this on February 18: “Facebook Corporation will not pay news outlets a fair price for content”.
Proponents of the bill argue that as people are now using social media platforms to access news, the big tech platforms should pay for this news.
Facebook can claim it is providing a “free” space for media organisations to engage with audiences.
But it could also be argued that media corporations should be paying Facebook for using its platform to promote their news articles.
The mandatory bargaining code bill is illogical.
Apply its logic to, for instance, the distribution of Green Left. If I’m handing the hard copy out in a shopping centre, the centre would be forced to pay me every time a person takes one.
The new code has been created to support the old corporate media in its battle with younger emerging capital. It is an example of the Liberal party’s so-called free market, where you help your mates who help you win elections — namely the Murdoch empire which stands to benefit most from this law.
There is nothing in the new bargaining code that will help content creators and independent journalists. Nor will it redistribute revenue in the form of grants to community media or reverse the cuts to the ABC and SBS.
Independent and community media organisations without legal and financial muscle will not benefit from this new law.
There is nothing in the draft that commits media corporations to hire journalists or invest in long form investigative journalism. If anything, it will lead to more clickbait journalism as that gets the hits on social media.
This bill is counterposed to an internet where information is fair, free and accessible. It will encourage even greater concentration of the media in a country which already has one of the highest in the world.
It could also be used to justify further cuts to the ABC and SBS — as they will be able to enter into agreements with Facebook and Google.
Zuckerberg’s shutdown was a bargaining tactic, as opposed to its final position. It came the day after the House of Representatives voted for the bill. It is expected to be voted up in the Senate this coming week.
Facebook’s flexing of its muscles is fairly standard practice for a global tech giant that is in constant negotiations with governments of countries with far larger user bases than Australia. In many countries, it operates under some form of regulation or is banned entirely.
If it feels it is in its corporate interests to take more drastic action, or even pull out of Australia as a warning shot to the rest of the world, it will.
Facebook is pushing for two things: the ability for organisations to apply for their website links to be shared on Facebook, with no expectation of being paid; and instead of transferring money to media corporations it becomes the biggest media tech corporation on earth.
It has already taken on many aspects of what newspapers used to do: classifieds has been replaced with the Facebook Marketplace; and gig listings are done as events.
It can expand on this, even promising a profit stream, to setting up a Facebook newsroom that pays journalists or makes partnerships with existing news organisations to host a curated selection of news on Facebook. It is already doing a variation of this in Britain.
This would be better for its business bottom line than to pay external media corporations to post their articles on Facebook that then take people away from Facebook to another site, often paywalled.
Zuckerberg, rather than Murdoch, would be paying the piper.
The government’s new media laws aims to help in the transfer of profits from one section of big capital to another. The mainstream debate has become stuck over whether this, or allowing new capital to supersede the old capital, is best.
The new media laws is the establishment’s fake solution to the very real funding crisis for journalism and growing social media market share, and it is unfortunate that the Greens, the Guardian and other liberal left groups are supporting it.
More radical alternatives need to be presented and argued for.
The Facebook shut down should serve as a wake-up call to the power of Zuckerberg. It should remind us that real public interest journalism comes from people-owned alternatives, accountable to those using them and not a single majority shareholder.
How can we create a space on the internet that works for us, where content creators are supported, marginalised voices are given a platform and algorithms work for people not profit?
Rather than redistribute advertising revenue to the big end of town, the funds need to be directed to community media organisations. The $700 million in cuts to the ABC since 2014 must also be reversed. ABC internships were once a landing post for new journalists some of whom went on to become award winning public interest journalists such as John Pilger and David Bradbury. These opportunities do not exist anymore.
Where is the money going to come from? Easy. Tax the big media companies. Currently, Facebook and Google pay next to no tax while Murdoch pays zero tax. That is the beginning of the answer of how to revive public interest and accountable journalism.
[Zeb Parkes is a film maker and photographer and a member of Socialist Alliance.]