The Guardian • Issue #1951

Australia gets Zucked: Facebook’s gangster move against Australia

Last week, social media giant, Facebook, restricted the Australian public from posting or accessing a range of information from external websites, particularly news sites, after an Australian parliamentary committee ordered big tech companies to pay for shared content from large publications. A massive division in Australian opinion followed, with many expressing outrage at Facebook, while others blamed the Liberal government for pushing a policy which largely bends the knee to the news mogul, Rupert Murdoch. Facebook then reversed the news ban after the Australian government amended the media bargaining code.

The Australian Facebook audience were unable to post or search for news articles directly from its platform, which means news providers were unable to share their content, and consumers were forced to find information through search engines or by directly accessing publication websites. Although some people may choose to opt out of using Facebook as a way of accessing news, the reality remains that a large proportion of Australians do, which created significant challenges for news providers and readers around the country.

In July 2019, after it was found by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry into “competition in media and advertising services markets” report that news media outlets were dwindling because advertising was moving over to social media platforms like Facebook and Google, the Morrison government began to establish a code in which big tech companies would need to contribute revenue to continue receiving their service. Initially, Google also threatened to shut down access to news through its search engine in Australia. However, it instead chose to establish deals with a range of media companies and remain available to the Australian public throughout the negotiations.

Regardless of how detrimental Facebook’s decision was to Australians, many commentators were supportive of the big tech company’s decision. Some incredulously believed Facebook banned the Murdoch press to fight against its domination of news media. Others even believed that Facebook was standing strong against the Australian government, because the Liberal Party was doing Murdoch’s bidding against the wishes of the Australian people. There were even more shocking sentiments suggesting Facebook represents “freedom of speech” against the Murdoch “dictatorship.” A few took a more trivial approach in supporting Facebook in that their news feeds were no longer filled with nonsensical articles.

However, the enemy of one’s enemy is not always a friend. Neither Facebook nor Murdoch’s interests lie in supporting the rights of the average Australian. Facebook did not remove Murdoch articles in a bid to win over the Australian public against a monopolised press, but as a declaration that it would not allow any national governments to regulate its business practices. The ban was intended to send a shot across the bows to other countries that are considering adopting similar media codes. It is clear that by Facebook censoring the Australian public, the Australian government is more obliged to cater to the tech giant.

It is absurd to suggest that Facebook represents freedom of speech, or has any interest in removing right-wing dominance in Australia. A clear example of this was the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, in which the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users was collected without their consent to provide analytical assistance to the 2016 presidential campaigns of Republican candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Facebook also has an ongoing history of censoring many dissenting commentators on its platform.

Regardless of some users’ preferences for a Facebook newsfeed free of articles, the changes had also forbidden articles from independent news sources, such as the Guardian – The Worker’s Weekly. Additionally, it is not as simple as suggesting Australians access news directly from websites or through search engines. More than fifty per cent of the Australian population receives its news from social media, primarily through Facebook. Workers, who are under severe time pressure, frequently check Facebook to see the latest news developments when they have the opportunity. With the limitations Facebook imposed, the Australian working class was further restricted from accessing independent media and contributing to the analysis of events from their perspective.

This being said, the Murdoch monopoly has also restricted the perspectives of working-class Australians in exchange for a mainstream media press that presents right-wing Liberal Party (LNP) voices with rationality and anyone left of that as ludicrous. Concurrent to Facebook’s news ban, former Australian Labour Party (ALP) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently spoke to the Senate Inquiry into Media Diversity in Australia, after more than 500,000 Australians signed a petition requesting the establishment for a Royal Commission which would predominantly focus on dismantling the overwhelming concentration of print media controlled by Murdoch’s News Corporation.

The petition explained that News Corp owns around two-thirds of daily newspaper readership in Australia, and its power is used to “attack opponents in business and politics.” It described that “Australians who hold contrary views have felt intimidated into silence, chilling free speech and undermining public debate.” It also expressed how the Murdoch monopoly has led to mass-sackings of news journalists; and the closure of more than 200 smaller newspapers, undermining the information provided to those in regional areas. These attacks insult any notion of democratic semblance in Australia.

However, the petition does not let Facebook or Google off the hook, also mentioning concern for the tech behemoths’ power over information dissemination in Australia. Therefore, while concern for both Murdoch and Facebook may be a somewhat sensible position, perhaps it is not the main question when looking at issues that affect national sovereignty. The questions may in fact be 1) How can Australia work towards more independence from the influence of these multinational corporations? and 2) What actions will create more power for the Australian working class to make lasting changes for the benefit of the majority?

As revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin observed in his remarkable critique, Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism:

“The enormous dimensions of finance capital concentrated in a few hands and creating an extraordinarily dense and widespread network of relationships and connections subordinates not only the small and medium, but also the very small capitalists and small masters … and the increasingly intense struggle waged against other national state groups of financiers for the division of the world and domination over other countries.”

Whilst Lenin was speaking of finance capital rather than big tech monopolies (as these issues were much before his time), the sentiment of the quote still rings true when analysing Facebook and Murdoch. While it may be true that the currently elected government in Australia does not represent the interests of the Australian working class, instead, the wishes of the Murdoch press in this regard, it is not up to Facebook, or any multinational corporation to make decisions on behalf of a nation of people outside its jurisdiction. It is foolish to think that a multinational US corporation that is exceedingly larger than News Corp would have the everyday Australian interests at its heart.

If Australians want to see real change in their country, it is exceedingly important to protect the sovereignty of the nation and to struggle against external governments or companies which seek to dominate the Australian government and put restrictions on Australian people. Rudd is leading the inquiry into this question by looking at media diversity in Australia.

Perhaps Australians should also be questioning the real role Facebook plays in controlling the lives of Australian people. The company has made it clear that it does not care about the laws of other countries and will do whatever it needs to do to maintain dominance. Australia needs to examine its dependence on these American-owned platforms and perhaps work towards an agreement that gives the nation more control over its own economy. In the meantime, readers of the Guardian – The Worker’s Weekly are encouraged to subscribe to the hardcopy newspaper to ensure access to news representing the Australian working class.

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