Thursday, February 18, 2021

Facebook vs Australia

The Australian government is currently working on a law requiring major internet platforms to pay media companies for the content they use. The threat of regulation has been at lest partially successful, with Google agreeing a deal with Seven West Media. Facebook, OTOH, has decided to play hardball:

Australians are being blocked from accessing news in their Facebook feeds, in a dramatic escalation of the social media giant's stand-off with the federal government.

Australians waking up this morning found they were blocked from receiving news from publishers' pages, including news organisations like the ABC.

The social media giant said it made the move in response to the government's proposed media bargaining laws, which would force major tech giants to pay Australian news outlets for their content.

Facebook's censorship goes much wider than the news organisations they would have to pay; they're also censoring unions, NGOs, politicians, and government agencies, including vital public health-related announcements in the middle of a pandemic. Its a naked display of market power, clearly intended to coerce Australia into renouncing its policy and deter other countries from adopting it: "do what we want, or we'll gag you".

This underlines all the concerns people had about the Twitter purge (which at least had justification as a long-belated enforcement of that platforms terms of service). These platforms now control our online lives, giving them an enormous amount of power. And that power clearly needs to be regulated to prevent exactly this sort of abuse. Given their reaction today, Facebook's response to such regulation is likely to be to threaten to withdraw service. Which means that any credible regulation is going to have to be a multilateral effort, backed by enough countries to ensure that they will be destroying a huge chunk of their market if they do so.

But it also shows that when Facebook said it was "too hard" for them to regulate Nazis and terrorists off their platform, they were lying. Facebook clearly can exercise an enormous degree of control over what can be posted, when they want to. And the fact that they're currently exercise such control for their own political purposes shows that they are effectively a publisher, which publishes by discretion. And the response to that should be obvious: repeal their common carrier defence, and make them liable for everything they choose to publish.