1 Australia has a population of 25 million but Facebook has 2.8 billion users globally.
2 Australia, Canada Finland, France and Germany could work out a common front with respect to Google and Facebook.
TOM TUGENDHAT: We are at a pivotal moment in history and the world must defeat Facebook’s bullying
PUBLISHED: 22:00 GMT, 20 February 2021 | UPDATED: 02:18 GMT, 21 February 2021
How do you ‘unfriend’ a whole country? The giant Facebook conglomerate has found the answer.
Never mind that Australia is a key Western ally with a democratically elected government.
Facebook has simply turned its face against the Australian public and is censoring what they can see in a dispute over who pays for news.
No doubt the stakes are high for the social media site’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg. Millions of dollars would be at risk if Facebook had to compensate media companies for the news stories it lifts and reproduces.
But it is no exaggeration to say that for the rest of us, the stakes are higher still.
What we are witnessing is nothing less than a battle for the future of our democracies. So it is vital that we join the fight to protect our freedoms.
At the heart of all this is people’s access to information – something that dates back even further than Gutenberg’s invention of a revolutionary method of printing.
Facebook’s ruthless decision to block Australians from seeing or posting any links to domestic or foreign news outlets on its platforms was a response to a planned law requiring it to pay for news shared on its site.
Its argument is that it, and other social media organisations, should not be governed by rules and restrictions that apply to other publishers and broadcasters.
With breathtaking arrogance, they claim they are unique – a modern-day open space like the Agora of ancient Greek cities where citizens were free to meet, exchange ideas, see friends and do business.
In other words, that they are an essential service and piece of modern infrastructure – not a publisher.
Beyond even the reach of nation states, these behemoth tech corporations have created levels of innovation and expression the world has never before known. Or so they like to claim.
In theory, what is wrong with such a vast, neutral, open field of dreams? The truth is that there is nothing neutral about these Silicon Valley gods and the future they promote.
They wish, in the motto of Facebook (whose income last year was £61 billion), to ‘move fast and break things’. In their eyes, they are heroes: agents of free speech and truth in a corrupt world.
Make no mistake, we are witnessing a power shift as the likes of Facebook inveigle their way into our everyday lives. But in the process, democratic institutions are getting pushed ever further to the margins.
Shutting down the news feeds on Australian accounts is also a sign of the vast power that such companies wield.
Whereas Australia has a population of 25 million, Facebook has 2.8 billion users globally.
By removing the news feeds and manipulating the information available to Australians, Zuckerberg is not operating in a neutral space but actually closing down freedom of speech.
Facebook isn’t the only social media site guilty of hypocrisy and double standards.
Despite enjoying a huge boost to its profile – and its £1.1 billion a year income – from Donald Trump’s compulsive use of its service, Twitter unilaterally decided to block him. So much for being a neutral space.
Showing their true colours, the unelected Silicon Valley censors stopped people from seeing the thoughts of the democratically elected leader of the Western world.
They decided it was in their own best commercial interests to do so. Then there is YouTube, which contributed to Google and Facebook’s 80 per cent share of the £14 billion UK digital advertising market in 2019.
It is true that the video platform has taken steps to make it harder for people to watch some of the crazier conspiracy theorists online.
But that was a long time coming. For years, its links and recommendations led viewers down what could sometimes be described as circles of hell, from one grotesque distortion of reality to the next.
That’s why this global alliance against Facebook’s bullying and Twitter’s censorship of free speech matters so much.
This isn’t just a fight over who pays for journalism. It’s about who controls information and power.
We’re at a pivotal moment in human history, just as was the case in the years when an explosion in ideas brought in the Reformation, the Enlightenment and, eventually, universal suffrage.
But with Gutenberg and the right to print, quite correctly, came and accountability for what was published.
There must always be democratic controls on how society lives and the existence of safeguards to protect the public.
Traditional media have editors and publishers who work under law and can be taken to court.
What redress do we have against the likes of Facebook and Twitter, let alone Chinese-owned TikTok?
The Australians are right and we owe it to their resolve that we follow their lead.
The tech giants must be made accountable, subject to democratic control – and pay the price when they get it wrong.
Freedom, after all, is not the preserve of boardrooms in Silicon Valley but a right that has been hard won for people and institutions over centuries.
It is much, much too valuable to sacrifice to the overweening power of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk.
Sky News host Chris Smith says the early signs would suggest the world’s largest nations may be “forming a cavalry” to back Australia and take on Facebook themselves.
Facebook decided to ban Australian news content following escalating hostilities over the Australian government’s media bargaining code, which sought to force tech giants to pay Australian media outlets for using news content.
Mr Smith said the Morrison government undertook the “world’s first real attempt, to stop the bullying and robbery being undertaken, by the rich and powerful big tech companies, such as Google and Facebook”.
“For too long, both had been using the resources of news organisations worldwide, to earn incredible revenue,” Mr Smith said.
“For all the criticism bucketed on the federal government in the past 12 months, it has done a remarkable job, through one of the worst years in living memory”.
Canada to follow Australia and take on Facebook, seeking payment for content
February 20, 2021 | 7:49pm | Updated
Canada is poised to take on Facebook, following the example set by Australia, which began a war with the tech giant when the country’s publishers backed proposed legislation demanding payment for their content.
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault condemned Facebook’s actions as “highly irresponsible” last week when the social media giant removed all Australian news content from its sites in retaliation.
Guilbeault warned that Canada would be next in making sure Facebook paid for news content from Canadian publishers. Guilbeault is charged with drafting legislation in the next few months that would require Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google to pay up.
“Canada is at the forefront of this battle … we are really among the first group of countries around the world that are doing this,” Guilbeault told reporters.
Guilbeault said he recently met with government ministers from Australia, Finland, France and Germany to hammer out a common front with respect to Google and Facebook, the Globe and Mail reported.
“It was the first ministerial meeting where we jointly started talking about what we want to do together regarding web giants, including fair compensation for media. We believe that there’s real strength in unity on that,” he said, adding that the growing coalition of countries opposed to Facebook and Google could soon reach 15. “I’m a bit curious to see what Facebook’s response will be. Is Facebook going to cut ties with Germany, with France, with Canada, with Australia and other countries that will join? At a certain point, Facebook’s position will be completely untenable.”
In Canada, critics of the social media giants welcomed the country’s stand with regard to the tech giants. Last week, Canadian lawmaker Alexandre Boulerice introduced a motion in the House of Commons condemning Facebook’s actions, saying that “Facebook’s intimidation” has no place in a democracy.
“We are seeing a very significant turning point in challenging the monopoly that big tech is wielding,” said Megan Boley, a professor of media studies at the University of Toronto in an interview with The Post. “Right now, they are deciding what is truth for the whole world. What’s exciting is that this is an issue that countries can unite on and hold Facebook and Google accountable.”
But others took to Twitter to blast Guilbeault’s plan. “If you force companies to pay for every link they make to another site you are in essence breaking the internet,” tweeted @mattolan. “This hurts Canadian media; it doesn’t help it. This is a very poorly thought out plan.”