Meta slammed over "dereliction" of commitment to Australian news

Meta slammed over "dereliction" of commitment to Australian news

Photo: Souvik Banerjee, via Unsplash.

The decision by Meta (NASDAQ: META) to "deprecate" the Facebook News platform through which it pays select publishers has been criticised by the Australian Government and media outlets, including those that haven't received a cent through the initiative such as this publication. 

Independent publishers are also seeing this as an opportunity to raise awareness about the preferential treatment given to much larger, legacy news organisations under the News Media Bargaining Code, which reinforces media concentration and the power imbalance that exists within an industry whose revenue streams have already been gutted by big tech. 

Aside from "deprecate" being a surprisingly aggressive dysphemism for what most organisations would announce as a "discontinuation", Meta's decision to no longer pay for news content once existing arrangements expire has been described by government ministers as a "dereliction of its commitment to the sustainability of Australian news media".

As per definitions in the Collins Dictionary, the choice of the verb "deprecate" likely stems from its usage in computing whereby a software feature is superseded and should be avoided, but more traditional meanings evoke criticism, disapproval, belittlement, disparagement, and avoidance.

Minister for Financial Services Stephen Jones and Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland issued a statement emphasising the decision would remove a significant source of revenue for Australian news media businesses.

"Australian news publishers deserve fair compensation for the content they provide," the Ministers said.

"The Australian Government is committed to the News Media Bargaining Code and is seeking advice from Treasury and the ACCC on next steps.

"We will now work through all available options under the News Media Bargaining Code. The Government will continue to engage with news publishers and platforms through this process."

When the News Media Bargaining Code was being legislated in early 2021, Meta retaliated by blocking a range of Australian Facebook pages, not just including news but also emergency services, government health pages and charities.

In a Facebook post, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote that the multinational's "actions to unfriend Australia, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing".

The tech giant then made up with the Australian Government to reach a deal. The Treasurer at the time, Josh Frydenberg, said amendments to the code would "strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers in obtaining appropriate remuneration for the use of their content by the digital platforms".

A couple of days later, Parliament passed the code, which was also an impetus for deals between news organisations and Google's owner Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG).

Related story: Why Google and Meta owe news publishers much more than you think

Now Facebook is claiming that the number of people using Facebook News in Australia and the US has dropped by 80 per cent in the past year.

"We know that people don’t come to Facebook for news and political content — they come to connect with people and discover new opportunities, passions and interests," says the company, whose social media network has been used to influence elections in various parts of the world through disinformation.

"As we previously shared in 2023, the news makes up less than 3 per cent of what people around the world see in their Facebook feed, and is a small part of the Facebook experience for the vast majority of people.

"The changes affecting the Facebook News feature will not otherwise impact Meta’s products and services in these countries. People will still be able to view links to news articles on Facebook."

The group said the deprecation of Facebook News in the US and Australia would not impact the terms under existing Facebook News agreements with publishers in Australia, France and Germany. Deals involving Australian publishers will start to expire this year.

Meta's decision was criticised by Seven West Media (ASX: SWM) managing director and chief executive officer, James Warburton.

"Meta needs to be designated. The case has not only been made but proven and we welcome Ministers Jones and Rowland’s commitment to the News Media Bargaining Code," Warburton said.

"We will work constructively with the ACCC and Treasury to ensure their designation."

Designation is a provision through which certain digital platforms can be subject to obligations under the code, although it is not something any Treasurer has yet applied to any company as the code's introduction led to voluntary commercial agreements involving Facebook/Meta and Google with different publishers. 

Digital Publishers Alliance chair Tim Duggan said a thriving, diverse media ecosystem was the backbone of a functioning democracy, and it was very important that publishers have the ability to reach their audiences wherever they may be.

"We strongly believe that publishers of all sizes deserve to be fairly compensated, however the News Media Code was unfair from the start, with many smaller and independent publishers missing out," Duggan said.

"Designation has many unwanted consequences that have the potential to be devastating to smaller publishers. So whatever the outcome is of Meta’s decision to turn their back on Australian users, we have to ensure that a diversity of a strong news media remains the primary focus of any government action."

Man of Many co-founder Scott Purcell, whose company was not a beneficiary of the funding arrangements under the News Media Bargaining Code "despite being a Registered News Business as recognised by ACMA and despite many attempts at negotiation or engagement", notes Meta's decision to distance itself from news distribution in Australia marks a significant shift in the digital media ecosystem. 

"Our concerns align closely with the broader industry sentiment regarding the transparency and distribution of funds within the media sector," he said.

"The lack of detailed reporting on the allocation of these funds raises questions about their effectiveness in supporting journalistic endeavors and media diversity. 

"It's evident that political connections and legacy media's entrenched positions have influenced the funding process. This reality underscores a critical challenge for the media industry's evolution, where smaller, independent voices struggle for recognition and support amidst a landscape dominated by well-established players."

He said the implications of such dynamics would extend beyond immediate financial concerns, potentially stifling innovation and diversity in media content.

"Further, I didn't agree with the premise of the News Media Bargaining Code in the first place as it does not recognise the true nature of the value exchange between publishers and platforms," Purcell said.

"Publishers volunteer all of their content on such platforms, through sharing and indexing their content (both of which are within their control) due to the large benefits they receive in the form of traffic and clicks.

"It beggars belief that the large established media players should be given an unfair advantage over small publishers through significant amounts of funding when such businesses were already profitable listed entities."

He said it would be a "spectacular own goal" by News Corp (ASX: NWS) if the Government subsequently decides to designate platforms like Meta and they decide to leave the Australian market altogether, taking significant referral traffic and resulting revenue with them.

Business News Australia managing editor and founder Camilla Jansen notes this media outlet was excluded from funding under the code, "even though we produce comprehensive news journalism in the public interest and are recognised as a public interest media organisation".

"This is the reply I got from Google: 'We are currently focused on partnering with publishers that have a history of producing comprehensive current events news journalism in the public interest as their core output. News Showcase is not available to publishers that predominantly produce content within a single category'," she says, clarifying that Business News Australia did not reach out to Facebook, and nor was it approached. 

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