On Thursday morning my time, Facebook began restricting the sharing of news on their platform within Australia. The move -- dubbed the nuclear option -- comes after months of wrangling with the Australian Government over proposed Media Compensation laws, intended to force big tech companies to pay for news shared or posted on their platforms.
I have no love of Facebook, but shockingly, I'm sympathetic to their position. When everyday users like you and I share links to news articles, it's the media companies that benefit through the traffic it generates. Traffic leads to advertising revenue, exposure, and subscriptions for the outlets that sell them. As for news outlets posting full articles on their social media accounts...well, that's their prerogative. In either case I don't see why Facebook, Google or Twitter should have to pay.
Expecting Facebook to pay for linking to news sites, is like me demanding money from readers who recommend my books to their friends.
The argument though is that Facebook and Google have hoovered up most of the online advertising revenue in Australia, and that's where news companies traditionally got their revenue. When traffic is directed via search or social media to news websites, Facebook and Google are getting a cut of the advertising revenue the outlet makes on that traffic thanks to referral bounties. Given that most news sites use Google and Facebook advertising, you can see how those companies are taking two bites of the carrot.
To that I say, 'so what?'
We live in a capitalist society, for better or worse. Facebook and Google have cornered the online advertising market because their offerings are more compelling than the competition. Google and Facebook monopolise eyeballs on the web, and they've created advertising tools that exploit that marketshare. Like every other business, Australia's media companies use Google and Facebook advertising to leverage their reach, and for the convenience those tools offer. Once upon a time, newspapers had their own advertising teams, but I can only imagine they were retrenched within a matter of years, or months, after Google Adsense made them obsolete.
Traditional news business models have been dead for years.
30 years ago newspapers made their money selling adverts and classified notices, and produced a product on sheets of dead trees that had to be shipped around cities and countries in trucks to be sold in newsagents and newsstands. The sales price of the newspaper itself only just covered the printing and distribution cost, along with the small margin your local newsagent made. I haven't bought a newspaper since the late 1990s, and I doubt I'm unique.
The internet disrupted all these things, and traditional media was left with the crumbs because they failed to adapt to the rapid technological and cultural shift. One could make the argument that propping up a dying industry by imposing penalties on the platforms news media depend on is quite frankly asinine. In a perfect world, people would pay for the content they consume, but consumers have come to expect free, or at least access to vast amount of content bundled in cheap $10-a-month subscriptions to the likes of Kindle Unlimited, Netflix, Spotify and, yes, even Apple News.
Naturally, there's a downside. A free press is an important part of a functioning democracy -- though if you permit a moment of cynicism, I hardly think the scandal-ridden, celebrity-fueled trash and political jingoism that passes for journalism these days is good for anything. Good journalism -- unbiased reporting of public interest topics -- is still valuable and necessary. Fake news, rampant uninformed opinion, conspiracy theories and hate mongering proliferate fast on social media, and in the absent of trusted sources, there's a real concern misinformed, or down-right malignant content will fill the void left by the outgoing news companies. Or maybe not; by Facebook's admission only 4% of an Australian user's feed is classified as news, whatever 'news' is in this context.
With the traditional news business model in tatters, perhaps we are better off funding public-interest journalism through taxation, as we currently do here in Australia with the Australian Broadcasting Company and SBS, and the Brits do with the BBC. This isn't without problems of course, given that many public broadcasters and news outlet are often accused of being left-leaning, though I don't think that's the case. There's also the question of government oversight. The last thing we need is government controlling or restricting the free press, or even overting the subtle control as patron-in-chief. But I do think that public broadcasters stay on point a lot better than Murdock's rags -- I see far less smut, scandal and celebrity on the ABC and BBC than I do in the Herald Sun or Sky.
Circling back to Facebook, and today's link blocking is only directed at news companies and some government information agencies. I, and every other blogger and indie creator, is still able to share my content. I suppose I should be thankful -- and part of me is -- that I've been presented with an opportunity to reach more Aussie eyeballs without having to complete against Big Media. Still, I'm not in the business of news or political commentary, and I'm not about to start now.
Naturally, I'll be watching this developments with interest. Google has dodged a bullet by rolling out their Google Showcase platform, and Apple already had agreements in place when they launched Apple News. I'm keen to see what Twitter will do as sharing news is much more prominent experience of users of that platform, myself included. Time will tell, I guess. I don't go to Facebook for news discovery, and rarely share anything there that's not related to my writing life.