A A year ago this morning, Australians woke up to find the company formerly known as Facebook had removed them from their friends list, a strike of global significance against democratically elected lawmakers trying to regulate in the public interest.
For catch-up viewers, Facebook has removed all news content, as well as a trove of civil society and government pages, including a domestic violence service, in response to legislation that would require that news sites be compensated for the value their networks derive from journalism.
The showdown concerned the News Media Negotiation Code, an intervention designed by competition regulator the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to force social media platforms to pay news outlets for the value of their journalism in the publication of links and excerpts from articles.
I supported the code as part of a comprehensive package of reforms aimed at recognizing the impact of the monopoly of social media platforms and their destructive impact on public interest journalism.
The code has become a point of reference for other governments, with the Canadian government proposing an iteration of the code, and in the United States, where Senator Amy Klobuchar has cited it as a working model.
So a year later, as we prepare to put on the party hats and blow out the candle, it’s worth wondering if this is chocolate mud cake or something. else.
We know that more journalists have been employed by mastheads across Australia, with Guardian Australia investing in new rounds and older media players like Nine-Fairfax and News Corp reversing a decades-long trend to reduce staff. We also know that ABC has an agreement that targets rural and regional reporting.
What we don’t know are the terms of those deals — and especially how much of the revenue was spent on hiring new staff or not firing journalists — because they’re deemed “commercial confidential.”
Indeed, the final deal Facebook reached with the Treasurer to end its news shutdown included an agreement that it would not be covered by the news trading code. In a week of Zoom diplomacy, the Morrison government backtracked on its legislation, arriving at a position where platforms would make their own deals rather than be forced into them by legislation that eventually passed the House.
This means that we have not been able to test how its code actually works, which has given the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) the power to determine whether a publisher should be compensated.
This is bad news for smaller publishers with whom Google and Facebook have yet to negotiate compensation, including more than 20 publishers who have passed the ACMA but have not yet finalized agreements. SBS and The Conversation have deals with Google, but not with Facebook. Some trade publications such as the Croakey Public Health Information Service have received no compensation from either behemoth.
We also don’t know the terms and conditions of the deals and what is expected of media companies in exchange for the deals in terms of repackaging their content to fit the platforms’ preferred models.
This is the big trade-off for code implementation; by forcing a compromise between big tech and big media, perhaps the mastheads ended up being even more dependent and integrated. But it’s also a commercial confidentiality, so we just don’t know.
We also don’t know all the details of the emerging wave of partnerships with big tech media like the Google News Initiative.
These are no doubt well-meaning, but are a bit like the tobacco companies that funded health research during the second half of the 20th century – especially at a time when platforms are halting real-life examination of their models by removing academic access to networked data.
Finally, the News Media Code of Negotiation was the only element of the 23 recommendations of the broader ACCC digital platform inquiry that was pursued with a sense of urgency. It’s hard not to be cynical about why.
The 12 months have been a long time for the protagonist of the company formerly known as Facebook; Mark Zuckerberg is burning dollars, losing users and the stock price in the process, but he’s not missing any of those.
Rebranded as “Meta” in a game calculated to dominate the next realm of digital connection by creating a virtual reality market, it’s also most likely creating a new realm of online harm.
My fear is that, thanks to the code, this company is now more integrated into the Australian media landscape, embracing the fundamental contradiction between social networks monetizing turbocharged engagement with content that irritates and excites; and an industry charged with building a central base of truth.
So, was the code worth it? Like the secret algorithms that drive the platforms, we really need more information to figure out what’s going on.