Facebook Just Banned News in Australia. Like, All of It.

The social network is taking the nuclear option in response to a proposed law that would force it to pay publishers

Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Facebook announced Wednesday that it will no longer allow links to news articles in Australia — period. That means Australian users won’t be able to link to any news articles, from any source, and Australian news publishers won’t be allowed to post to Facebook at all. Facebook users in the rest of the world will also be unable to view or share links to Australian news sources.

The drastic measure, which Facebook had been threatening for months, comes ahead of a law expected to pass in Australia that would require online platforms to pay news organizations for hosting links to their content. Earlier Wednesday, Google struck a deal to provide “significant payments” to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in exchange for hosting the company’s journalism, a sign that Google intends to comply with the law, after earlier threatening not to. Microsoft has also said it will comply and stood ready for Bing to suddenly become Australia’s top search engine had Google opted to withdraw from the country.

Facebook took the position that the law was untenable because it would penalize Facebook for decisions freely made by publishers and users to post news articles there. In its blog post, Facebook characterized news as a small fraction of its business — about 4% of what users see in their feeds — but something that it was happy to host as a sort of public service. (That feels like a bit of a stretch, though it’s certainly true that Facebook needs news content less than the news publishers need Facebook, at this point.) Exactly how Facebook will define news and how it will enforce the ban are not yet clear; the company said that it will use “a combination of technologies to restrict news content” and will establish “processes to review any content that was inadvertently removed.”

I’ll write more about this shakeout soon, but for now, the big thing to know is that this is an ugly, thorny mess in which there were no clear right answers — and how it plays out could shape the relationship between tech and the media in countries around the world.

Any attempt to paint the Australian news media and government as the “good guys” taking on Big Bad Tech must reckon with the reality that it was News Corp that helped drive the legislation, a News Corp–friendly government that is expected to pass it, and News Corp that will reap the greatest benefits — not to mention that the law appears to have serious flaws and unintended consequences. Damien Cave, the New York Times’ Sydney bureau chief, has a helpful analysis for those interested in the Australian political dynamics involved.

Any attempt to paint Facebook and Google as victims of a shakedown must reckon with how both companies enthusiastically gutted journalism’s business model, imposed themselves as data-thirsty intermediaries, established perverse algorithmic incentives for publishers that warped news coverage, and used media “partners” as pawns in a quest to dominate the attention economy — all while rejecting the core responsibilities of truthfulness and public interest that the news media had long been expected to uphold.

I wrote in depth last year about the big-picture context behind Australia’s effort to force Facebook and Google to pay for news, why it was flawed, and whether it might be better than the status quo despite the glaring drawbacks. My OneZero colleague Owen Williams argued last week that Australia’s law was the wrong approach, even though the problems it seeks to address are real.

It’s worth keeping in mind, meanwhile, that the battle is not over: Facebook making this move before the law passes may be a gambit to force last-minute changes by taking a hard line.

If the move stands, it will likely mean more misinformation and less factual information on Australian Facebook, as users inevitably continue to debate politics without the ability to cite their sources. (They can still post memes!) The question is whether it in turn encourages Australians to spend marginally less time on Facebook and more time reading news elsewhere, or whether they remain as addicted to Facebook as ever and simply get much worse information than they did before.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store