Facebook reverses Australia news ban after government makes media code amendments

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Facebook will restore Australian news pages in the next few days after the government agreed to more amendments to the media bargaining code that makes the social network and Google pay for news.

On Thursday Facebook blocked all news on its platform in Australia, and inadvertently blocked information and government pages including health and emergency services.

This historic ban on Australian news pages came during escalating tensions over legislation that would force the platforms to negotiate a fair payment with news organisations for using their content.

The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and communications minister Paul Fletcher announced the compromise had been reached at the 11th hour as the legislation was being debated in the Senate.

Concessions the government has made include: giving the platforms one month’s notice before designating them; taking into account any commercial deals Google and Facebook have made before designating them and a two-month mediation process before the arbitration system kicks in.

Facebook’s Australian managing director, Will Easton, confirmed news would be restored in Facebook newsfeeds in Australia “in the coming days” following the agreements made with the government over a change in the code.

“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to reach an agreement with the Australian government and appreciate the constructive discussions we’ve had with Treasurer Frydenberg and Minister Fletcher over the past week,” he said in a blog post.

“After further discussions, we are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognise the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”

Under the changes, Facebook will be given one-month’s notice before the code will apply to it, if the government decides, and a statement from Facebook’s global VP for partnerships, Campbell Brown, on Tuesday indicated the company could pull news from Australia again if it was subject to the code.

“Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.”

Frydenberg said: “Importantly, the amendments will strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers in obtaining appropriate remuneration for the use of their content by the digital platforms.

“The explanatory memorandum will confirm that the code only applies to the extent a digital platform is making covered news content available through those services.

“These amendments also add further impetus for parties to engage in commercial negotiations outside the code – a central feature of the framework that the government is putting in place to foster more sustainable public interest journalism in Australia.

In a press conference, Frydenberg said Facebook was “pretty well advanced” in negotiating deals with a number of media companies, and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told him they have now re-engaged in negotiations with media outlets.

Frydenberg said Australia had been a “proxy battle” for the rest of the world on the regulation of Google and Facebook.

“I have no doubt that so many other countries are looking at what is happening here in Australia, because of this innovative code the Morrison government is now pursuing, so Facebook and Google have not hidden the fact that they know that the eyes of the world are on Australia, and that is why they have sought to get a code here that is workable,” he said.

Australia’s biggest locally-owned media company, Nine Entertainment, welcomed the amendments and said they look forward to resuming talks with Facebook about a commercial arrangement.

“We are pleased the government have found a compromise on the digital code legislation to move Facebook back into the negotiations with Australian media organisations,” a Nine spokesman said.

Nine had rejected all Facebook’s offers because they were voided if the media code became law.

The director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology Peter Lewis said on face value it seemed the integrity of the code remained.

“This whole episode should give Australians pause to reflect on our over reliance on Facebook to connect with each other,” Lewis said.

The government said under the changes:

• A decision to designate a platform under the code must take into account whether a digital platform has made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with news media businesses.

• A digital platform will be notified of the government’s intention to designate prior to any final decision – noting that a final decision on whether or not to designate a digital platform would be made no sooner than one month from the date of notification.

• Non-differentiation provisions will not be triggered because commercial agreements resulted in different remuneration amounts or commercial outcomes that arose in the course of usual business practices.

• Final offer arbitration is a last resort where commercial deals cannot be reached by requiring mediation, in good faith, to occur prior to arbitration for no longer than two months.

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