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The Technology 202: Facebook's ban on Australian news triggers greater scrutiny of its vast power

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with Aaron Schaffer

Facebook’s decision to block the posting and sharing of Australian news highlights the platform's vast influence over the media industry, raising the stakes in global regulators’ efforts to address its power. 

The social network yesterday announced it would prevent users in Australia from viewing or sharing links to news articles, and also prohibit Australian news outlets from sharing news on their Facebook pages. Facebook's brute force tactics come as it fights a proposed Australian law to force tech giants to pay for the platform to link to their news articles, which tech giants fear could become a precedent for other similar regulation around the globe. 

But in taking that extreme step, the company highlighted how much power it has to sidestep regulations it doesn't like. And that's emboldening lawmakers who already believe there's a case for Facebook to be broken up. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I), who led a 16-month investigation into competition in the tech industry, called the moves “the ultimate admission of monopoly power.” 

Blocking Australian news undermines the public commitments that Facebook has been making to regulators for years. 

Under intense scrutiny for its privacy practices and potentially anticompetitive behavior, Facebook has responded with ad campaigns, op-eds and congressional testimony in which it repeatedly committed to work collaboratively with legislators on the future of Internet regulation. But its crackdown on news shows the company is only willing to do that when the regulation is on its own terms. 

From CNBC's Sal Rodriguez:

Experts warn that misinformation could fill the void in the absence of credible news outlets posting their content on Facebook, potentially undermining the social network's promises to fight falsehoods. 

Facebook has also frequently positioned itself as a defender of free speech, often arguing its preserving that principle when ignoring calls to remove dangerous, false or otherwise problematic content. But observers noted that blocking news directly contradicts that position, and shows the company is willing to adopt extreme tactics for business reasons. From Joshua Lowcock, the chief digital officer at UM Worldwide:

Facebook has previously attempted to position itself as a friend to news publishers.

Facebook has made several moves to bolster its relationships with media companies amid intense scrutiny of the impact tech giants have had on the industry's revenue. The company in 2019 launched a dedicated “News” tab and paid some publishers for stories that appeared there, including from The Washington Post. The social network that year also made a $300 million commitment to local news organizations. The company has also been investing in partnerships with news outlets such as the Associated Press to fact check content on its site, amid a deluge of criticism for hosting misinformation about elections, public health and more. 

But the action in Australia highlights how dependent publishers are on Facebook to push traffic to their websites – and how little Facebook believes it needs them. In a blog post announcing the news ban, Facebook said news content accounts for less than 4 percent of the content in people's news feeds. Facebook said it last year generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth about AU$407 million. 

“Facebook does not care about news or misinformation,” tweeted Emily Bell, a professor at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. “It cares about perception.”

William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia & New Zealand, argued the proposed law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.” Tech giants argued the law would remove their autonomy to develop commercial relationships, and protest that it would use binding arbitration to determine the amount they should pay for news. 

There was significant collateral damage from the Facebook ban. 

Facebook said it would continue to fight misinformation and ensure that key health authorities, like its coronavirus information center, remained online in Australia. But the ban on news pages inadvertently swept up some government websites that posted information about emergencies, fires and weather. (Facebook said it's working to restore those pages). 

Australian regulators responded with a stark warning to the company. “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a statement. “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them."

Google took a very different strategy than Facebook – highlighting how the companies value news differently. 

Google is aggressively fighting the proposal in Australia, and previously threatened to shut down its search engine in the country if the legislation passed. But the company instead walked back that statement and sought to broker deals with publishers, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, as my colleague Gerrit De Vynck reported. 

“Google also appears to be more in tune with what the community wants and seems to take social responsibility somewhat more seriously than Facebook,” Johan Lidberg, a media professor at Monash University in Melbourne, told Gerrit. 

Our top tabs

Amazon gave preferential treatment to a small group of big sellers in India. 

Hundreds of internal Amazon documents from 2012 to 2019 indicate the company also publicly misrepresented its ties with some of those sellers and used them to dodge rules intended to protect smaller businesses, Reuters’s Aditya Kalra writes. The documents reveal the company's aggressive response to attempts to regulate e-commerce. 

Test the Boundaries of what is allowed by law,” said one slide in a 2014 presentation viewed by Reuters, titled “Risk Analysis.”

The e-commerce giant, which has bet big on India, also encouraged company officials to not discuss the dominance of some companies on its site in a meeting with India’s ambassador to the United States. The revelations will give small businesses in the country new ammunition as they attempt to pressure Prime Minister Narendra Modi to crack down on the company. Amazon has positioned itself as a friend to small business in India but company documents revealed that just two sellers on the company's platform there accounted for around 35 percent of the company's sales revenue in early 2019. Amazon had indirect equity stakes in those businesses. 

(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon “does not give preferential treatment to any seller on its marketplace” and “has always complied with the law,” the company said in a statement. It also said that it “treats all sellers in a fair, transparent, and nondiscriminatory manner, with each seller responsible for independently determining prices and managing their inventory.” 

Civil rights groups want Biden to oppose facial recognition technology.

Nearly 50 groups want the Biden administration to freeze federal use of the technology and block funds from being used by local governments to buy or access AI tools, my colleague Drew Harwell reports. A Democratic-controlled government could be more receptive to their arguments than the previous administration. 

“Even if the technology worked perfectly, it would facilitate the mass tracking of each person’s movements in public space — something intolerable in a free and open society,” the letter states. “We cannot allow its normalization.” The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

But any effort to limit facial recognition use will face resistance from law enforcement and other proponents of the technology, who say it is useful for fighting crime.

About a quarter of Trump's Facebook posts last year contained falsehoods or extremist rhetoric. 

The new analysis by left-leaning group Media Matters for America found that Facebook did little to limit or block the posts, which were shared and liked more than 927 million times, Elizabeth Dwoskin reports. Facebook appended labels to only 506 of the 1,443 problematic posts, and they mostly added generic labels such as “See Election Results” to the posts. 

Just one post was labeled false, while another was labeled partly false. 

Facebook removed just seven posts by President Donald Trump and his campaign last year. Four of them were removed for copyright-related issues. Trump’s account was suspended in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Facebook’s independent oversight board, which is funded by the company, is reviewing that decision.

Rant and rave

Twitter’s plans to launch an audio direct message feature have some people scratching their heads. TechCrunch’s Drew Olanoff:

Artist Amy Wilson noted the trend to audio could end once the coronavirus pandemic is over:

And Pando contributing editor Aimee Pearcy pointed out possible real-world implications:

Inside the industry

Apple loses car sensor expert.

Benjamin Lyon is leaving the company to join space start-up Astra, Bloomberg News’s Mark Gurman reports. Lyon was a key member of the team working to bring Apple’s vision for an electric, self-driving car to life. The tech giant is reportedly scouting out car manufacturers for the project. 

The Pentagon is investing in weapons that can decide when to kill on the battlefield. But can we teach machines to fight ethically? (Zachary Fryer-Biggs)

A Macedonian misinformation site dominated Parler before the Capitol riot (Protocol)

Workforce report

Uber hired a labor researcher critical of the company.

Alex Rosenblat was hired as the company’s head of marketplace policy, fairness and research last month, Bloomberg’s Brody Ford writes. Rosenblat, who previously worked as a senior researcher at Data and Society, interviewed hundreds of the company’s drivers for a 2018 book on working conditions and surveillance. Uber said it hired her because it wants “people at Uber who care about driver issues and who aren’t afraid to challenge our thinking on any given issue.”

As Twitter’s stock soars, employee bonuses drop (The Information)


  • President Biden nominated Jennifer Abruzzo as the National Labor Relations Board's general counsel. Abruzzo is special counsel for strategic initiatives at Communications Workers of America, a union that supported unionization at Google.
  • New Biden administration hires include Melanie Hart, a former Center for American Progress senior fellow who will examine some Huawei policies at the State Department, and Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who has called for supply-chain measures along with other Biden administration appointees.
  • Team Hallahan’s Kate Hallahan, a former House Appropriations Committee staffer, has registered to lobby for Apple. Hallahan, who is also registered to lobby for Amazon Web Services, expects to lobby on appropriations and semiconductor-related legislation.


  • Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, Reddit user Keith Gill and two hedge fund executives testify before the House Financial Services Committee today at noon. The hearing is centered on meme stock Gamestop’s ups and downs.
  • Ranking Digital Rights launches its 2020 Corporate Accountability Index at a New America event on Feb. 24 at 11 a.m.

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