Step too far
With its unprecedented move to block news content on its site in Australia, Facebook is now at the centre of a massive storm. If the social media giant was hoping to bring Australia back to the bargaining table and send a warning to all would-be regulators across the world, then it probably achieved its intended effect. But at what cost?
First, a recap. The whole Australia versus social media companies fiasco started when Australia decided to introduce a new media bargaining law that would require companies like Google and Facebook to enter into agreements with news outlets for showing the latter's content on their platform. This was an attempt by the Australian Government to address the ad revenue disparity between traditional media and social media. Almost immediately, both Facebook and Google made their dissent against this new law know. Google was the first to make bold statements and threatened to shut down all its services and move out of Australia as it had done in the face of regulatory action in China. While Google has now entered into publishing deals with few of the biggest media houses in Australia, it has yet to retract its threat of pulling out of Australia.
To emphasise, this threat is clearly a big deal in both its size and implication. When it comes to how Australians choose to get their news now, Facebook and Google account for 50 per cent, together surpassing the reach of traditional news networks in the country. With this action not only has Facebook barred millions of Australians from accessing news sources on their platform, but it has also stopped Australian news publications from reaching out to billions of readers abroad through its platform. On the surface, this move, no matter how heavy-handed could be a calculated one considering that Australia only accounts for a small fraction of users worldwide. But that would be an extremely short-sighted move. Regardless of whether Facebook achieves its desired amendments to the new law in Australia, it has sent an undeniable message to the governments of the world. It is a message that says that Facebook will not hesitate to use its clout and the power of its platform to 'persuade' nations to apply legislation that is favourable to the social media giant. The sheer act of a private entity so openly using pressure tactics against the government of a nation is an undeniably troubling and powerful sight. Unfortunately for Facebook and Google, this may not go down the way they desire on the world stage. At this point, practically every government in the world is looking at instituting some or the other new legislation that would allow greater regulation of social media. If there were any politicians still on the sidelines regarding the need to urgently regulate such platforms, actions such as this one by Facebook are likely enough to galvanise them into righteous-rage-induced action. And all for what? Such actions will only maker any further future negotiations with other countries more difficult in this regard knowing that social media giants can just threaten to pull-out their services. If lawmakers were looking to regulate these companies out of a sense of justified concern, now they would do it just to teach Facebook, Google, etc., a lesson. Ultimately, it will not be the law that Australia may end up passing that will inspire other nations to similar acts but the reaction of tech companies themselves. The Australian Government has already reached out to several governments for support and many like India are already bringing about a more strict regulatory code for such platforms. There are also some additional worries regarding what happens when traditional media pulls out of a space like Facebook which has become a major source of news for many not just in Australia but across the world. The natural fear is that misinformation and conspiracies increasingly take their place. Even though Facebook and the others are committed to fighting misinformation on their platforms, experience says that it won't be enough. With a backlash that is only growing worse with time, it safe to say that Facebook's act of testing the governments of the world in such an open manner is a step too far, regardless of its justifications.