Facebook Blocks News in Australia, Diverging With Google on Proposed Law

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With Australia moving to make the tech companies pay for news, Facebook took a hard line, while Google has struck deals to pay publishers.

SAN FRANCISCO — For months, Facebook and Google have been locked in a stare-down with news publishers and lawmakers in Australia.

At the heart of the fight is whether the tech giants should pay news organizations for the news articles that are shared on their networks. Under a proposed law from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, both Google and Facebook would be required to negotiate with media publishers and compensate them for the content that appears on their sites.

Facebook and Google have fought hard to prevent the Australian law — which is expected to pass this week or next — from forcing their hands. But on Wednesday, the two companies sharply diverged on how to head off that regulatory future.

Google began the day by unveiling a three-year global agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to pay for the publisher’s news content, one of several such deals it has announced recently where it appears to be effectively capitulating to publishers’ demands. Hours later, Facebook took the opposite tack and said it would restrict people and publishers from sharing or viewing news links in Australia, in a move that was effective immediately.

In conciliatory language toward publishers, Don Harrison, president for global partnerships at Google, said that the company had invested to help news organizations over the years and that it hoped “to announce even more partnerships soon.”

Facebook struck a distinctly different tone. “The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, said of the draft Australian legislation.

The divergence illustrates the different ways that Facebook and Google approach news. For years, the two internet giants had treated news publishers more or less the same. Both had little incentive to pay news outlets for content and argued, correctly, that they helped drive a lot of readers to news stories that would otherwise go unnoticed on lightly trafficked websites.

But the steady decline of newspapers — juxtaposed against the billions of dollars Google and Facebook reaped in digital advertising — intensified questions over whether the platforms had a responsibility to financially support publishers. In recent years, both companies started paying news organizations through various programs as criticism about misinformation on their platforms seemed to heighten the need for quality journalism.

Now the situation in Australia has underlined that the lockstep approach can go only so far because Facebook and Google ultimately value news differently. Google’s mission statement has long been to organize the world’s information, an ambition that is not achievable without up-to-the-minute news. For Facebook, news is not as central. Instead, the company positions itself as a network of users coming together to share photos, political views, internet memes, videos — and, on occasion, news articles.

News Corp, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal and The Australian, has been a longtime critic of Google.
Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

“Google is already used to playing a different game in every different country,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, said of the companies’ different approaches. While he said Facebook was taking what it considers a moral stance, Google “may have gotten beyond this fantasy of a universalized approach to doing business in the world.”

Paul Fletcher, Australia’s communications minister, said the government would move forward with the legislation even as conversations with Facebook continue.

In interviews, he praised Google for engaging with the process and suggested that Facebook would be closely scrutinized for deciding to “remove all authoritative and credible news sources from the platform.” In an interview with 2GB radio, Mr. Fletcher added that the decision “certainly raises issues about the credibility of information on the platform.”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the country’s top competition authority, has spent the past year drafting a bill for the Australian Parliament that would require Facebook and Google to negotiate with media publishers and pay them for content. The legislation includes a code of conduct that would allow media companies to bargain individually or collectively with digital platforms over the value of their news content.

Google and Facebook saw the proposed legislation as a worrisome precedent. As the negotiations over the proposal continued throughout 2020, both companies openly said that they might have to resort to more drastic measures against it.

In August, Facebook said it would block users and news organizations in Australia from sharing local and international news stories on its social network and Instagram if the bill were to move forward. Last month, Google also threatened to make its search engine unavailable in Australia if the government approved the legislation.

But in recent weeks, Google has sought to blunt the impact of the proposed legislation by striking deals with media companies such as Reuters and The Financial Times. Last year, Google said it would commit to paying $ 1 billion in license fees over three years to news publishers for content that shows up within Google’s News page, as well as Discover, the news feed that appears in Google’s mobile search app.

Mike Segar/Reuters

Google’s agreement on Wednesday with Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp was particularly notable. Both have shown open animosity toward each other for years, dating back to the earliest days of the search engine.

In 2009, Mr. Murdoch threatened to remove News Corp articles from Google, accusing the internet giant of stealing its content. Google has long suspected that Mr. Murdoch and News Corp stoked growing antitrust scrutiny in Washington and among state attorneys general, according to current and former Google executives.

Under the two companies’ agreement, Google agreed to pay News Corp for use of its news content without disclosing specific markets or dollar amounts.

But the search giant did not concede a major sticking point in past negotiations, according to two people familiar with the agreement. The agreement doesn’t appear to explicitly include paying for links and snippets of news stories that appear in general search results, the main source of Google’s power.

In a news release declaring victory for its “quixotic quest” to get Google to pay for news, News Corp also said the agreement included the development of a subscription platform and investments into video journalism by YouTube, a Google subsidiary.

Facebook’s decision on Wednesday was consistent with its past statements about blocking news links in Australia. The move could prove deeply difficult for Australians, with publishers no longer being able to share or post any content from their Facebook pages and users unable to view news articles shared on Facebook by overseas publishers.

Within Australia, Facebook’s news ban seemed to roll out haphazardly. News pages worked and then didn’t work, with error messages for some users and streams of posts disappearing for others.

But by 9 a.m. in Sydney, the impact was apparent and even more wide-reaching than Facebook’s statements suggested. In addition to news publishers being blocked, pages for Fire and Rescue New South Wales, the Bureau of Meteorology and state police departments had all been wiped clean. Even state government pages with public health information about the pandemic were blocked, prompting outrage from many officials and lawmakers including Senator Sarah Hanson-Young of South Australia.

In a statement, Facebook’s Mr. Easton said that the social network had largely helped the media industry and that publishers would not be able to increase their revenue in the same way without the company’s aid.

“The value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favor of the publishers,” he said. “Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$ 407 million.”

Josh Frydenberg, the Australian Federal Treasurer and deputy leader of the Liberal Party, said in a tweet that he and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, had a “constructive discussion” on Wednesday.

They would continue to “try and find a pathway forward,” Mr. Frydenberg said.

Katie Robertson contributed reporting.

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