Facebook’s Australia Deal Makes It Look Like a Union-Busting Publisher
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It seems we have a deal — though the terms are still unclear. At least, Facebook Inc. and the Australian government’s separate announcements Tuesday indicate that the two are on the same page.
Less than a week after suspending news content from its platform in Australia, the U.S. technology giant announced it would restore service. The catalyst for this turnaround was explained in brief statements. The details may end up being crucial to how Facebook operates not only in Australia but around the world. Expect controversy over censorship, bias and publishing to continue.
After further discussions with the Australian government, we have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers.
That’s Campbell Brown, vice president of global news partnerships. I added the emphasis because, absent fuller details of the agreement, it seems that Facebook only returned to the table after being assured of control over what can and cannot be posted. In fact, Brown says as much later in the same statement: “The government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation” (emphasis added).
Facebook bristles at the thought of having contracts imposed on it. But note that the platform is retaining control over what’s posted — or at least, which publishers’ content gets posted. That means it necessarily makes editorial decisions. Under that model, Facebook could for all intents and purposes be considered a news publisher — a label that founder Mark Zuckerberg himself resisted when facing U.S. lawmakers back in November.
Yet it seems that it may be willing to take that risk in order to play a bigger role: union-buster.
As my colleague David Fickling wrote last week, the proposed Australian rules would have allowed publishers to negotiate as a group. In a labor scenario, we call that a trade union. The wording of the statement indicates Facebook may have managed to get the Australian government to back down on treating publishers as a class, thus tilting power back toward the U.S. company.
If that truly is the case, then Facebook may have won the battle to control whom it negotiates with and how. But it may have to work even harder to avoid being perceived as taking an editorial stance — and the responsibilities that come with it. Regulators in the U.S. and Europe will be just as eager as Australian news organizations to see what agreement has been reached Down Under.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.
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