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Facebook takes nuclear option

Editorial

Facebook's Australia and New Zealand boss William Easton says it is with a “heavy heart” that the social media giant has responded to a proposed law, which would force it to pay publishers for news content, by blocking its 18 million active Australian users from viewing or sharing news on its platform.

More like a bully's glint in its dollar-sign blinkered eyes as it pulled this shock move yesterday, just as the even bigger online gorilla Google — which had threatened to pull its search service from Australia back in January — reached a three-year deal with News Corp to pay “tens of millions of dollars” for content it shares on its Google News Showcase, having already struck deals with two major TV networks worth about A$30m each.

Facebook's lengthy explanatory statement downplayed the importance of news on its platform, saying it only accounts for 4 percent of the overall content people see.

That is a self-defeating position for a company struggling to deal with the misinformation, scams and hate speech that are so prevalent on Facebook. Also, and scarily, 30 percent of Australians say they get all their news on Facebook (52 percent say they use it as a source of news, just below the world average of 55 percent) . . . which will surely have two consequences if this block becomes permanent; people migrating to preferred sites, publications and channels for news, and the rest — a swathe of society — becoming more susceptible to misinformation; then more pressure on social media platforms to police the content they are hosting.

Here's what Facebook is trying to keep its grasp on: an estimated 80 percent share of the Australian social media advertising market, which is worth about $NZ3 billion.

Across all online advertising in Australia, Google accounts for 53 percent of revenue against Facebook's 23 percent. Another insight into what's at stake in this stoush: Australians spend an average 1 hour 47 minutes per day on social media, with 18min 52secs of that on Facebook (the highest across different platforms, although YouTube gets the most traffic).

There is no doubt Australia is playing hardball; former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball said it was “essentially holding a gun to the head of private businesses”. Our Government responded yesterday by saying it “wouldn't be impressed” if Facebook banned Kiwis from accessing news on its platform, while pointing out it was working through the issues in a different way to the path chosen by Australia.