Published in Overland Thursday, 18 February, 2021.

Facebook has followed through on its promise, banning news content on its platform in response to the media bargaining code currently before parliament. Although it was something that Google had talked about most prominently (apparently it was a different story behind closed doors), it is the blue team that has ended up making good on the threat.

On one read, this is no surprise: news is not nearly as relevant to the business model of Facebook as mainstream media organisations claim it to be. Misinformation is a lot more effective at keeping people hooked on the platform. Facebook is powered by cultural and political personalities who have the freedom to focus on optimising engagement without having to cross-subsidise entire newsrooms. Moreover, the company has likely saved tens of millions of dollars a year (based on what Google has been reported as paying), by implementing a relatively low-cost solution. The balance sheets of the social media business made this a no brainer.

However, whether or not this makes good political sense is another question. Tech companies are an easy target for politicians keen to score easy points, and often for good reason. For too long, they have ridden roughshod over people’s rights, treating users as a source of information to be mined, rather than respecting them as people with agency and the right to engage in online life with curiosity and serendipity. This behaviour has revealed them to be greedy and lawless, and always willing to exploit their users for their own pecuniary interests. When gigantic tech platforms behave like this, it suits politicians wishing to conceal their own complicity in allowing the situation to arise in the first place.

Because this, of course, was always a potential outcome.

The media code aims to solve a public problem – the decline of the fourth estate – by setting up a system of private transfers between digital platforms and news organisations. Such an approach harbours several design problems.

Firstly, it represents an abandonment of the democratic political practice of taxation and spending. That strategy might have allowed elected representatives to strip tech companies of their excessive profits, which is an important objective. It would have also permitted lawmakers to redirect such funds to fill the actual gaps that have emerged in the media in recent times, rather than, say, Rupert Murdoch’s pockets. Most notably, regional and rural news services have suffered in recent decades, which – in the context of climate change-induced tragedies like the black summer of 2020 – puts lives at risk. There was no guarantee this problem would be solved by the proposed media code. Instead, the way it was drafted would arguably have incentivised data driven content creation, aimed as gaming search algorithms. This is the exact opposite of the kind of journalism we need at this moment.

The other key design problem with the proposed code was that it aimed to align media organisation and tech platforms against the interests of users. Media organisations have demonstrated that they are perfectly fine with exploiting user data for ad dollars, so long as they are not left out of the game. What does it say about tech policy in this country that the human rights of users were almost entirely left out of the conversation? Or that the invasive and exploitative practices of surveillance capitalism, which many people deeply resent, were not merely left untouched by the media code, but indeed entrenched, given that media organisations would have a vested interest in partaking in them?

In case it still wasn’t clear: Facebook is not a public service. Today, it has shown it by taking an unforgivably heavy hand to banning content – targeting everything from the Bureau of Meteorology to the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It’s not clear whether this was an intentional removal of anything that looks like ‘news content’ as defined under the proposed code, or just yet another example of automated processes gone wrong. Either way, it’s a clear signal that Facebook prioritises its bottom line above the interests of genuine public participation or community building. Facebook continues to show us what the company is really like: it’s time we finally believe them.

Equally, however, this is an important moment to remember that the proposed code was not about protecting the many organisations that generate content and are now contending with blank Facebook pages. Instead, this was tech policy-making driven by large news media companies who saw the opportunity to extract value from an unpopular opponent.

Imagine if the government had shown instead an interest in facilitating public participation and community-building by supporting other platforms that were not driven by profit. This could be a source of experimentation and exploration for the public broadcaster, but also of more grassroots community-driven initiatives. It would be a world in which Facebook doesn’t get to dictate the terms of our engagement in online life.

Image credit – Annie Spratt.