Facebook will restore the news in Australia. But the platform was nice without it.


On Thursday morning Melbourne time, Australians woke up to the realization that a large tech company had delivered on its great threat. We just didn’t learn it from any official news source on our Facebook newsfeed.

Australians were prevented from posting and viewing news content on Facebook. If we tried to post a link to a story, a pop-up window informed us that “This post cannot be shared.” He continued: “In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts posting of news links and all posting of news pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted. “

What was more: all the Facebook pages of the Australian media had been removed from posts. Even the pages of international publications were cleared; While you could still see posts on Slate’s Facebook page, when I looked at them, I didn’t see any. “There are no publications yet,” it read. what it was worseIt soon became clear that many other important pages, including state health departments, had been erased as well, just days before Australia began launching the vaccine.

The shocking but completely predictable move came, as the pop-up said, in response to government legislation, which had been passed by the lower house of parliament with bipartisan support on Wednesday night. The Media Negotiation Code, which would oblige “designated digital platforms” to pay new publishers for the links they display, redistributing some of the advertising revenue they have consumed, had been controversial for many months: Facebook threatened to post September news, and in January Google threatened to remove its entire search engine if the code went ahead as it was. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg held regular talks with CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai and expressed confidence that an agreement would be reached. He seemed right: Google began closing multi-million dollar deals with publishers in the weeks leading up to the bill’s passage. But someone took their eye off Facebook.

After Facebook took the news offline, Australian politicians attacked the company for doing exactly what it said it was going to do, with the Prime Minister arguing that the company had “forsaken” the nation and demanded that the health pages be published. , weather and emergencies. restored, something Facebook did quickly. Others (including me) criticized the government for ruining negotiations by making extreme demands and then failing to come to terms, which in turn annoyed publishers that it was supposedly trying to “help” (not to mention a variety of charities , unions, community groups and sports organizations).

Just under a week later, the ban has been reversed, with an 11th-Engagement time for the government to agree to fundamentally weaken the code. The change means that the government cannot apply the code to a company if it can demonstrate that it has made a “significant contribution” to the Australian news industry through trade agreements, and must notify the platform one month in advance before subject it to code. In other words, Facebook just has to close a few deals, and the government will leave it alone. The news has yet to come back, but Facebook’s Australian Managing Director Will Easton says it will be reset “in the next few days,” while Global Vice President for Partnerships Campbell Brown indicated the company could get news from Australia again. if the government applied the code. it. Frydenberg wants to pretend that this is a victory for the government in a “power battle” for the world, but it is the Australian government that has backed down. Facebook was right: the news needs it more than the news.

But does Facebook need news? A few weeks ago, writing about the Australia vs. Big Tech showdown, I joked that a newsfeed with no news could be a “blessing”; After all, the newsfeed can be a cesspool of useless click baits, inflammatory headlines, and stupid comments. . He wasn’t serious: I, like Frydenberg, didn’t think this would actually happen. But what was it like to experience a Facebook without news?

Scrolling through Facebook on Thursday morning, the news feed was still dominated by news, just not via links. It was the statuses of friends and group posts, discussing and assimilating and debating the strange reality we find ourselves in: the real blue Facebook reaction to. “This will go on to be one of the most prolific political issues in history,” wrote one of the government. “Facebook would absolutely rather ruin its own product than pay a small amount of tax. What a bunch of idiots, ”wrote another. Others, behind the backstory, were crowdsourcing where they should direct their ire, divided between the tech giant and the conservative government. Many were noticing what other pages were missing, in a panic, mainly about charities and social services, which were soon restored. But I was really surprised by how many posts I saw on my social network“The people I’m supposed to be on Facebook to see.”

In the days that followed, the posts about the news ban decreased, but the presence of my Facebook friends did not. A girl I met in Mexico screamed at her partner 30th; a couple celebrated the purchase of their first home; my cousins ​​in England posed with their children. I saw profile pictures and memes, thanks and babies. It was extremely strange and extremely healthy, a reminder that good things were also happening in the world.

I saw a lot more satire too, with beloved satirical news pages initially torn down and soon restored. The Chaser, one of the first to be returned, was like a kid in a candy store, poking fun at Murdoch’s headlines, along with the public broadcaster he used to air on, for the fact that he could post while they do not. But he also used his spotlight to highlight some genuine news (“Seeing as we are the only news site left, we thought we might start to reveal corruption on a massive scale,” he wrote), sharing a full list of corruption from the government. (which soon crashed their website). It probably helps that I already liked it and followed a lot of skits, but there is no doubt that they showed me interesting and informative content. But I wonder what was left in other people’s temporarily free news feeds.

As a journalist, I was devastated by the news ban, fearful of what it meant to my already decimated industry, and angry at the government for going so hard, supposedly at the behest of big fish like Rupert Murdoch, and hurting little fish. who trust Facebook in the process. As a citizen, I am frozen by Facebook’s display of raw power and worry that misinformation on the platform will happen again.

But if I’m honest, as a user, things felt good. Better than good; the news feed was lighter, calmer, happier. It resembled what Facebook used to be, a social network rather than a news aggregator, and it was as nice as you’d expect. I didn’t learn anything newsworthy while on the go; I learned things that were news-valuable. I did not live in ignorance, because I receive my news in other places, with more control over what I see. I don’t need news on Facebook, and I really, really hope other Australians pick up on this too.

I have complained before that Australia is a “testing ground” for social media functions, because we are not really a major market. We are not yet; Facebook was able to make an example of us here, a warning to other countries that are considering their own codes, because we represent such a small segment of their market. But if this ban had remained and became popular, could it also have been the model for a new direction for Facebook?

Don’t celebrate too soon, Zuckerberg. I’m not sure that other users or I spend so much time on Facebook without news, an amount that had already been reduced considerably. But it would be quality over quantity. You know what they say: “No news is good news.” In fact, one of my friends said that last Thursday. I know, because I saw it in my newsfeed.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.



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