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Facebook Blocks News Content From Australia

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Should Facebook and Google pay news outlets for the content they post? The Australian government is close to passing a new law that would force the tech companies to strike deals with big publishers. Google has conceded, but Facebook not so much. Instead, this week it pulled the plug on news in and from Australia. We should note that both Google and Facebook are NPR funders.

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik and tech correspondent Shannon Bond join us. Thank you both for being with us.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

SIMON: What exactly has Facebook done in Australia, Shannon?

BOND: Well, this is effectively a news blackout on Facebook. So Australian users and news outlets can't post links to news articles on Facebook. Australians can't actually view links on Facebook from any news outlets, like The New York Times, the BBC, NPR. And Facebook users anywhere in the world cannot post news articles from any Australian publisher. And, you know, there's this law that you mentioned. It's a proposal. It looks like it's going to go into effect quite soon. And it would require the platforms effectively to pay for these sort of news links when they're posted. And Facebook is making a calculation. It doesn't want to pay for those news links.

It's argument is that it - basically, it doesn't need to. It says publishers need it more than it needs them. And, you know, there's reason to believe that may be true. I mean, Facebook likes to say news is only about 4% of what people see on the platform. You might ask, so why don't they just pay for it? But I think what we're seeing here is Facebook doesn't want to set this kind of precedent elsewhere. You know, we see this company, you know, they're running ads in The New York Times here in the U.S. saying they support new Internet regulation. But I think what we're seeing in Australia is that it wants to be involved in shaping that regulation.

SIMON: David, does Google striking deals with publishers set a precedent?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it does. I think Google is basically indicating it's willing to sue for peace. Google is more reliant in some of its products and platforms like Google Search, Google News on content from news publishers than Facebook is. You know, I don't think it's an accident that, you know, it's striking this deal with News Corp, which is controlled by the Murdoch family, Rupert Murdoch. And Rupert Murdoch is native Australia. You know, he not only is a dominant player there in their newspapers, much more than he is here in the states, but also he has a government that's very allied with him in his interests and that he is supported strongly. But, you know, as you think about the European Union, as you think about here in the United States, you know, Google is going to be far more hard-pressed to say that there's some sort of principle at stake.

SIMON: Journalism can be expensive, especially doing it well, and many news outlets are hurting. So, David, could these kinds of payments help, specifically maybe for small local news outlets?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, Google and Facebook in recent years in particular have been trying to step up what they do in terms of philanthropic efforts. Each of them announced $300 million initiatives not so long ago to help a variety of smaller ones. But it once does help those outlets getting the money, and at the same time, it's kind of a very public #ICare. But it could matter a lot.

You know, there are other ways to do it. You could say, look; we won't want to fund news outlets, we want to fund news coverage. And there could be things analogous to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that fund coverage in places where news outlets aren't really operating right now, the so-called news deserts. But I do think it's notable and important. And both Facebook and Google have become increasingly important to the bottom lines in terms of digital advertising revenues for news outlets. What this does in some ways is acknowledge, even if it doesn't fully compensate for, them destroying the model that used to exist prior to 15, 20 years ago.

SIMON: Shannon, what kind of reaction from outside Australia in countries that obviously might feel inspired or instructed by this?

BOND: So here in the U.S., we're seeing some members of Congress are planning to introduce a bill that would allow small publishers to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook, you know, without facing sort of antitrust pressure. And I think you're going to sort of see that elsewhere. I mean, we see people in Canada, we see people in Europe talking about the idea of these kind of structures that may look a little different from Australia.

Another tech giant here in the U.S. actually even supports the idea of bringing a law like Australia's to the U.S. That's Microsoft. You know, it, of course, has a search engine, Bing, which is much smaller than Google. Microsoft talks about this as being a way to maybe sort of gain market share, level the playing field a little bit and take on the, you know, the really powerful giants in this field.

SIMON: But let me ask about the impact directly as we see it right now on Facebook users in Australia. There's a news blackout on that platform. What does that mean for the rest of us?

BOND: We know these social media platforms in particular have a big problem with false claims, with misinformation, conspiracy theories spreading. Now you've taken away a powerful sort of tool in that fight. You know, Facebook's invested a lot in trying to get rid of misinformation but also in amplifying good information. And, you know, without news outlets on the platform, I'm not entirely sure how that works.

SIMON: David?

FOLKENFLIK: The key thing is, you know, even if they all do get money here in the United States, the biggest market, it's all pocket change to Facebook and Google. The real question in some ways is why they didn't just sort of do this proactively instead of being forced to it.

SIMON: David Folkenflik covers media. NPR's Shannon Bond covers tech. Thanks both very much for being with us.

BOND: Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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