News ban will weaken Facebook: Sims
Max Mason

Competition tsar Rod Sims claims Facebook will suffer if it follows through with its threat to block all news on its platform for Australian users as a response to avoiding paying for the value of journalism posted on the social media platform.

Earlier in September, Facebook threatened to ban news from being shared on its newsfeed and Instagram in response to the draft compulsory code of conduct released by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Rod Sims’ moves to find a solution to some of the problems created by the power of big tech platforms are gaining global attention. Edwina Pickles

The code is aimed at dealing with an imbalance in bargaining power between Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Google and Australian media companies. The code would force Google and Facebook to pay for the value of journalism being on their platforms.

“What they do is their call and I don’t know what they’re going to do. I think it’d be a shame for Australian democracy, would be a shame for Facebook users if they chose that court of action,” ACCC chair Mr Sims said during a digital presentation with the Australia Institute.

“If it becomes known that you can never get news media on Facebook, what does that do to Facebook’s standing? Will people go eslewhere?

“So it’s up to Facebook to make the call, but I think it will also weaken Facebook.”

There is much speculation in the media and technology industries about whether Facebook would actually go through with the threat, or if it even had the capability to do so.

The competition boss also dismissed public campaigns by Facebook and Google which allege the code will give news media organisations access to their algorithms.

“There is no access to the back end algorithms. That’s one of the views that’s occurred, but there’s nothing in the code that gives access to the algorithms. There is a provision of 28 days notice of something that’s going to have a significant effect,” Mr Sims said.

“But Google and Facebook could do that for all their users. In fact, that would probably be a good idea. But, it’s only when Google and Facebook judge that what they are doing has a significant effect on news media. There’s no interference by news media in the front end, back end, any aspect of the algorithm…that concern is just not true. If it were true, I’d be concerned, but it’s not.”

Mr Sims also dismissed the arguments made by technology sector leaders such as Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes that the code of conduct is “legalised theft” or akin to making Netflix prop up pay TV providers or for popcorn no longer bought at the movies doesn’t stack up, and is simply an old industry holding a new one back.

“[Media] may be an old industry, but…Google and Facebook are not replacing it. That’s the misunderstanding I think that people like Mike Cannon-Brooks say. Where’s the journalism going to come from? Where’s the media going to come from? That’s what we’re trying to help here,” Mr Sims said

“So yes, Google and Facebook have come up with a fantastic, clever business model, free services, get your data, advertise to you, and away you go. But, they’re not providing media, they’re not providing news, they don’t employ journalists. They’re not replacing the news media businesses. We’ve got to make sure in this new world, we don’t lose something that’s really important to us and that is critical media coverage that helps our democracy function.”

Mr Sims said the ACCC is continuing to work with Facebook, Google and Australian media organisations, and the draft legislation will change. However, the core elements of the final decision arbitration and non-discrimination clause will remain.

Max Mason is an award-winning journalist covering the media sector. He joined the The Australian Financial Review in 2013 and has worked at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Fox Sports Australia and news.com.au. Connect with Max on Twitter. Email Max at max.mason@afr.com

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