18 February 2021




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

LAURA JAYES, HOST: Michelle, you’re obviously pretty concerned about what’s happened overnight. That’s just one example of the WA Opposition Leader. This is beyond news and into some Facebook pages that can’t be classified as news, and in fact, they’re official Government pages.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It is very disturbing Laura, and I note that there are even emergency services pages that have been blocked which wouldn’t be classified as the public interest journalism that was ever intended to be caught by the code and this legislation. I think Australians should be rightly outraged by what is happening on that front. Now whether that is some kind of software error or whether that was intention, that is really by the by: it is happening now and those consequences are being felt now. This is about protecting our democracy by having a strong Fourth Estate, our democracy also appears to have been threatened in exactly the way you describe.

JAYES: Has Facebook gone too far?

ROWLAND: This is the question on everyone’s lips. There’s two parts there. Firstly, when Facebook first started out, it was about networking with friends, sharing photos, not really a news service and I’m sure that no one would ever really envisaged that some 40% of Australians would be accessing their online news from search and social media in the year 2021. The other thing we need to remember that technologies evolve and they come and go. You might remember a time when we all had MySpace, we all used Internet Explorer, they’ve all gone by the by. There’s been a lot of analysis done about whether Facebook becomes a much more diminished product and less compelling space to be if news is removed. Australia is the first place in the world where this is occurring, so we are literally a petri dish for this. Above all that, we need to keep our eyes on the prize, remember that we need to have a strong and sustainable public interest journalism sector in Australia and that means landing a workable code.

JAYES: And we don’t have that workable code when it comes to Facebook. For Google, it has been workable. It has been suggested this morning that Facebook with its market power in Australia is just being a corporate bully. Do you agree?

ROWLAND: Therein lies the whole problem. They have been identified as having market power, that was the whole point of the ACCC’s Inquiry. I think News Corp pointed it out perfectly when they described them as “unavoidable trading partners” as a result of their extreme market power. We have seen deals done outside of legislation being effective, and they have been with Google obviously and they have been publicised in the last couple of days. For Facebook, that does not appear to be the case. Again, I point out that it is incumbent on the Government to get back in the room. They have been talking a lot about the discussions they have been having with these tech giants to deliver outcomes. They need to deliver a workable code to ensure that Australian consumers and news media businesses benefit as a whole.

JAYES: We know the Code is there and Labor did support this legislation in-principle. I believe it’s passed through the House of Representatives. Does Labor now want to look at this again after the events of this morning?

ROWLAND: We did let it go through the House last night. We did support it, as we always said we would support a workable code through the House of Representatives. Even though there were many questions unanswered, we stated from the outset that we would support this legislation in the House. We don’t know what is going to be presented when it gets to the Senate. I was observing Josh Frydenberg’s comments earlier and he was very circumspect, and I think he has left the door open to something different going to the Senate. The short answer is that we don’t actually know what is going to be put up in the Senate. At all times, I reiterate that Labor supports the principles enshrined in this project and we support a workable code.

JAYES: When it gets to the Senate, are you reserving your right to support amendments you wouldn’t have considered before this morning?

ROWLAND: Well, we have always said we don’t think this is the kind of legislation where it is optimal to be amending it on the floor of the Parliament. We would prefer the Government to reach out to us, as I am sure they would do across the Senate as is the case when these matters arise, to ensure we have something that is workable. Again, we’re not in the room. The Treasurer and the Prime Minister have been involved in these commercial discussions that have been the background for a lot of these negotiations. It is our hope that the Government will reach a position that will ensure this impasse is overcome and we have a piece of legislation that can receive broad support when it gets to the Senate and be resolved in the interests of news media and Australians.

JAYES: In what situation do you think its okay that Facebook pulls the page of NSW Health, health pages in the middle of a global pandemic, that can’t just be oversight. That is undermining what’s going on here.

ROWLAND: It’s not okay, and I would even describe it as irresponsible. We are still in the middle of a pandemic. People obtain their information more and more through online means. You would normally have someone going through a search engine or their Facebook Newsfeed to understand what is going on. I think it is extremely disappointing, and if this is an error, that Facebook rectifies it immediately. If it is not an error, that is still rectifies this and ensures it doesn’t happen again. 

JAYES: Facebook earns a lot of money here. Billions upon billions every year. Australian businesses advertise and even the Government uses Facebook to advertise. Would you suggest that that be rethought?

ROWLAND: I think that’s early days here. I think we should still keep our minds focused on achieving a workable code which does that does what it was always intended to do. I can certainly appreciate why many Australians who have woken up to the news of this today would be very angry. They would be very angry not only in terms of a denial of the kind of services they are used to having, but I think these platforms are always evolving. Australians always deserve the best. We deserve the best in terms of digital technology, we deserve the best in terms of the kind of innovations that the global giants have brought to bear on Australian society and our global economy. At the same time, they are not above the law. Whilst on one hand they are motivated by profit, on the other hand, they have developed to a point where is an inherent social responsibility to do the right thing.