18 February 2021




SUBJECT: Facebook’s response to the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code Bill

THOMAS ORITI, HOST: Joining me now live is Labor’s Shadow Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland. Thank you for your time. I guess, firstly, this is only really broken in the last few hours. What’s your reaction to this news from Facebook?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It is sudden, and it is a world-first, and it is immediately having far reaching consequences. We’ve seen all of a sudden news pages becoming blank on Facebook. Not only that, we’ve seen Government pages, including emergency services sites, have been determined to be news as well, and they have gone blank in the same way. It is having an immediate and profound impact on Australian consumers, and I think it highlights the point that this needs to get resolved as a matter of urgency.

ORITI: On that note, the Federal Treasurer has said he spoke with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this morning. What is your response to the Government’s handling of this and have you had your own conversations with Facebook?

ROWLAND: I’ve been in touch with Facebook’s Australian representatives who have reiterated what was in their overall statement, which summarises what they perceive to be the uncertainty of the legislative framework as being their reasoning. In terms of how this is being conducted so far, the Treasurer and also the Prime Minister have inserted themselves into negotiations between news businesses and these global players. While we have had some of these commercial deals done with Google in recent days which appear to be worth quite substantial sums of money, Facebook has been there in the background. Now, the Government have been in the room, saying who they have been speaking to: they need to get back in the room and negotiate a workable code. 

ORITI: When you say the Prime Minister has inserted himself, surely this is as a result of Facebook’s concerns about the media bargaining code, not that the Prime Minister or the Treasurer have intervened somewhat?

ROWLAND: What I’m talking about to date is that, over the last couple of weeks, they have been very open in the fact that they have been conducting negotiations with these news platforms, and as late as yesterday, it was almost a victory lap we saw from the Treasurer when we had the announcement of more deals signed with Google. It appears by any objective measure that those celebratory tones would have been premature now that we know what we know this morning.

ORITI: So do you think that these discussions should not have been as public? Do you think that might have made a difference?

ROWLAND: I’m not saying that at all and I haven’t been in the room. Coming from a commercial law background, I wouldn’t presume to know what was being discussed. My point is that this needs to be resolved because the whole point of this exercise undertaken by the ACCC was to recognise the enormous bargaining power that these global tech giants have, and that is on display now and in light of that power, how do we ensure proper recompense for original news content? That was always the intention of this. That’s why Labor has always supported a workable code, and we will continue to support a workable code, and we look forward to one being developed.

ORITI: From what we are seeing this morning, these news websites have blacked out on Facebook. This is happening now – it’s extraordinary. Has that code backfired and do Australian consumers risk missing out?

ROWLAND: Well they do risk missing out and they are missing out right now. The reality is that 40 per cent of online news is accessed through search and social media. One argument in response to that is that people can just go to original news sources – that is correct, they can do that. For example, when Google withdrew from Spain, there was analysis done which showed people were choosing to do searches among original news sites. As far as I understand, what Facebook has done here is without precedent, so we don’t actually know where it’s going but I would hazard a guess that there would be many Australians right now who would be feeling a mix of both dismay, but also anger, at Facebook for what has happened and that is quite understandable. The role of the Opposition here, and we have been constructive and will continue to do so, is to ensure the original objective of the code continues to be upheld.

ORITI: You mentioned Spain a minute ago. In all of this, is there some sort of a presumption, and I’m guilty of this as well, that Facebook has all this market power. I mean Facebook itself has said that its news makes up less than four per cent of the content users see on its News Feed. Are you optimistic that people will just go back to the original source, they will go to those news websites instead?

ROWLAND: Two things there. You’ll remember when Facebook just started, it was more a networking platform as between friends sharing photos, and it has morphed into something very different today. Its genesis was not intended to be where it is now, and if you had told Facebook ten or fifteen years ago that this would be happening today, I am sure many people would say that seems quite unreal. The second point is Facebook, and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way to any platforms, over time, the credibility of the platforms do change over time. There’s been much analysis about what Facebook would look like if it were to remove news, and the view of many learned people is that it would be a much diminished product. It could mean people choose not to use it. Now, that wouldn’t be the first time that people have moved on from what was seen as the norm and standards everyone would have; once upon a time, everyone had MySpace, everyone had Internet Explorer. So look, maybe the world is changing and maybe there will be a reaction to this – not only from in Australia consumers and media – but also on a global level from policy makers. This is a pretty big step. I don’t think we can underestimate how big this is. In the meantime, I think we need to keep our eyes on the prize, keep ourselves focused on delivering a workable code and that’s the role of the Government.

ORITI: Michelle Rowland, thank you for your time.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.