No 10 ‘concerned’ about Facebook news shutdown in Australia

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The UK government is “obviously concerned” at the repercussions of Facebook’s shutdown of large numbers of news and public information resources in Australia, Downing Street has said, confirming that the culture secretary will meet the US company this week.

Oliver Dowden is “expecting to meet Facebook this week”, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said, adding that the date had yet to be confirmed.

Facebook has faced a wave of condemnation and negative publicity after it suspended Facebook pages for government bodies, health departments and charities along with those for news sites in Australia amid a row over a new law that would force it and other platforms to pay for links to news content.

Johnson’s spokesperson said: “We are obviously concerned about access to news being restricted in Australia. As we always have done, we’ll be robust in defending free speech and journalism.”

The spokesperson was asked whether the UK could consider following suit in obliging Facebook and similar companies which make huge revenues linking to journalism to pay for this. He said the UK was setting up a unit “to promote competition in digital markets and ensure major tech companies cannot exploit a dominant market position”.

This will be established within the government’s competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), from April, with a consultation to take place on the unit’s “form and function”.

Asked whether it would look at an Australian-style system, the No 10 spokesperson said: “As part of the plans we will introduce a new statutory code of conduct that will support the sustainability of the news publishing industry, and try and help rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms.”

Facebook’s actions in Australia have been condemned as an “attack on democracy” in an open letter from dozens of prominent charities, media and campaign groups around the world.

In an interview with the Financial Times on Monday, Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive, said the watchdog planned to launch a series of antitrust investigations into big tech companies this year.

“Until we have these new legal powers, if we want to achieve impact for consumers in the UK, we need to use our current [tools],” he said. “There are quite a few cases against the digital platforms in Brussels today and a number of these include the UK market.”

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