Australia and Facebook in talks over sweeping news ban

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia and Facebook held high-stakes talks yesterday after the social media giant sparked global outrage by blacking out news for its Australian users, as Canberra insisted it would not back down on a new law that would force the tech firm to pay for journalistic content.

From Thursday, Facebook blanked out the pages of media outlets for Australian users and blocked them from sharing any news content, rather than submit to the proposed legislation.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he spoke with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg yesterday to find a way out of the showdown, and that negotiations would continue over the weekend.

“We talked through their remaining issues and agreed our respective teams would work through them immediately,” Frydenberg said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also urged Facebook to “move quickly past” what he called threatening behaviour and “come back to the table”.

He said his government’s world-first legislation to force Facebook and Google to pay Australian media for news content published on their platforms was garnering interest from leaders around the world.

File photo shows a Facebook employee walking past a ‘like’ sign at Facebook’s corporate headquarters campus in California. PHOTO: AP

“People are looking at what Australia is doing,” he said, noting that he already discussed the situation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

The legislation, called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, was approved this week by the Lower House of Parliament and will be debated beginning on Monday by the Senate, which is expected to adopt the law by the end of the week.

Facebook defended its dramatic response to the law, saying the legislation “fundamentally misunderstands” the platform’s relationship with media organisations and that it had no choice but to bar news content from its services in Australia.

Since the ban came into effect, visits to Australian news sites by users at home and abroad dropped significantly, with overseas traffic down by over 20 per cent per day, according to data analytics company Chartbeat.

The data also suggested users were not yet leaving Facebook in response to the ban, with no apparent rise in Google search traffic recorded.

News Corp Australia Executive Chairman Michael Miller, speaking to a separate Senate inquiry in Canberra, said the full impact of Facebook’s decision was yet to be felt by publishers.

Yesterday saw referral traffic from the platform disappear, he said, while “direct traffic to our websites was up in double digits”.

Miller also encouraged the social media giant to return to direct negotiations with media outlets.

“The door is still open to Facebook.”