LONDON (Reuters) – Facebook’s move to block all news content in Australia is an attempt to bully a democracy and will stiffen the resolve of legislators across the world to get tough with the big tech companies, a senior British lawmaker said.
The move by the 17-year-old Facebook shocked Australia and sent shivers through the global news industry, which has already seen its business model upended by the titans of the technological revolution.
“This action – this bully boy action – that they’ve undertaken in Australia will, I think, ignite a desire to go further amongst legislators around the world,” Julian Knight, chair of the British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, told Reuters.
“We represent people and I’m sorry but you can’t run bulldozer over that – and if Facebook thinks it’ll do that it will face the same long-term ire as the likes of big oil and tobacco,” said Knight, a member of the ruling Conservative party.
The dispute centres on a planned Australian law that would require Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google to reach commercial deals to pay news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or agree a price through arbitration.
News Corp struck a global news deal with Google, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled media company said on Wednesday.
Facebook said it had blocked a wide swathe of pages in Australia because the draft law did not clearly define news content. It said its commitment to combat misinformation had not changed, and it would restore pages that were taken down by mistake.
Knight’s comments echoed those of the head of the UK’s news media trade group.
News Media Association chairman Henry Faure Walker said that Facebook’s action during a pandemic was “a classic example of a monopoly power being the schoolyard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves”.
Governments across the world have been puzzling for years what to do with the companies that have transformed global communication, amplified misinformation and ripped revenue away from more traditional media producers.
On Thursday, the British government took a more cautious line than some of Facebook’s fiercer critics.
“It is vital people can access accurate news and information from a range of sources, particularly during a global pandemic,” a government spokesman said in a statement. “We encourage Facebook and the Australian government to work together to find a solution.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, asked about the dispute during a visit to Paris, said: “There’s a sensible conversation that is to be had between government and tech companies about making sure news is available in the most effective, efficient and cost-effective way for consumers.”
Knight, who compared the innovation and disruption of the large U.S. tech companies to the invention of the printing press in Europe in the 15th century, said the tussle between them and the state would be one of the defining battles of the age.
“This (Australia) is a real test case,” said Knight, who said he favoured using competition rules.
In Britain the government has commissioned reviews into digital competition and the sustainability of news.
Its biggest media publishers have agreed partnership deals with Google and Facebook but industry sources said they are also lobbying the government to do more and will be emboldened by the Australian government.
Publishers lined up to express surprise that Facebook, headed by founder Mark Zuckerberg, had taken such action.
“So much for Facebook’s commitment to free speech,” said a spokesman for MailOnline, one of world’s most popular news websites. “We are astonished by this inflammatory move.”
The Guardian Media Group, a British media company which owns the Guardian newspaper, said it was deeply concerned.
“Dominant online platforms are now a key gateway to news and information online. We believe that public interest journalism should be as widely available as possible in order to have a healthy functioning democracy,” a spokesman for the group said.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; Additional reporting by Alistair Smout in London and Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Keith Weir, Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)