Commentary

Facebook's Block On News Sharing In Australia Has Familiar Ring

Facebook this week followed through on a threat to prevent people and publishers in Australia from sharing news, triggering an onslaught of public criticism.

News outlets likely have seen a drop in web traffic following the move, which was more extreme than the company's past efforts to make publisher content less prominent on its platform. Facebook's ban on news-sharing has a familiar ring for publishers.

The company's action comes as the Australian lawmakers prepare to approve a law that would require Facebook and Google to pay publishers for their journalism, and to seek binding arbitration if they couldn't agree on those payment terms. The proposal follows complaints by news publishers that they weren't being adequately compensated when their content was shared on Facebook or appeared in Google's search results.
Both companies have opposed the law, and even threatened to curtail service in the country, but the similarities in their strategies end there. Google this week reached agreements with publishers, including News Corp., to carry its content in an aggregation service called News Showcase.
Google's move should help to appease publisher complaints that its search engine harms them by strip-mining their content and suppressing web traffic. The company has rejected those claims, arguing its service is valuable to publishers because it helps them get discovered online.
Facebook also helps publishers generate web traffic, though the mechanism is somewhat different. Facebook users can follow publishers that set up a mini-home page on its platform and see articles in its "news feed," the central part of its website and app. Facebook users also can share publisher content by pasting website links into their posts, helping to generate additional web traffic.
Those features are still available to Facebook users — as long as they live outside of Australia — following the ban on news content. The ban has spurred criticism for being heavy-handed, but I don't see a reason for Facebook to reverse course unless vast numbers of people in the country delete their Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp accounts.
The #DeleteFacebook hashtag again trended briefly on Twitter, as it does every time people express their outrage against the company. Those short-lived boycott movements have yet to dent the company's double-digit growth in ad sales.
Ultimately, Facebook really doesn't need publisher content to remain viable as a business, considering that news is a tiny fraction of its content. Facebook's users still have plenty to see among posts from their friends and families. The company likely can dispense with its Facebook News content aggregator, which is only available in the U.S., without much effect on usage time or engagement.
Facebook's ban on news in Australia is another reminder for publishers that they shouldn't be overdependent on the company for web traffic. That's a lesson many learned three years ago, when Facebook changed its news feed algorithm to show fewer articles from publishers as part of an effort to prioritize "meaningful social interactions." At that time, the company was responding to criticism that Facebook was bad for people's mental health.

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Many publishers saw lower web traffic after that change, underscoring the need to develop a revenue strategy that didn't depend on Facebook's whims. Australian publishers seeing similar declines in traffic will be stronger if they can wean themselves away from Facebook.
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