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Facebook agrees to resume posting news in Australia

by The New York Times | February 24, 2021 at 2:20 a.m.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook said Monday that it would restore the posting and viewing of news links in Australia after gaining more time to negotiate over a proposed measure that would require it to pay for news content that appears on its site.

The social network had blocked news links in Australia last week as the new measure neared passage. The legislation includes a code of conduct that would allow media companies to bargain individually or collectively with digital platforms over the value of their news content.

Facebook had vigorously objected to the code, which would curb its power and drive up its spending for content, as well as setting a precedent for other governments to follow. The company had argued that news would not be worth the hassle in Australia if the bill became law.

But on Monday, Facebook returned to the negotiating table after the Australian government granted a few concessions. Under several amendments to the code, Facebook would get more time to cut deals with publishers so it would not be immediately forced into making payments. The amendments also suggested that if digital platforms had significantly contributed to the Australian news industry, the companies could avoid the code entirely, at least for now.

In exchange, Facebook agreed to restore news links and articles for Australian users "in the coming days," according to a statement from Josh Frydenberg, Australia's treasurer, and Paul Fletcher, the minister for communications, infrastructure, cities and the arts.

Campbell Brown, Facebook's vice president of global news partnerships, said in a statement that the social network was restoring news in Australia as "the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won't automatically be subject to a forced negotiation."

The amendments offer a reprieve for both Facebook and the Australian government, which have been in a standoff over the proposal for months. Those tensions came to a head last week when Facebook cut off news in the country, causing disruption and confusion for millions of Australians.

Links to news articles were blocked, along with the Facebook pages for Australian state agencies, health departments and emergency services. Users became upset when a flood of false or misleading pages filled the information void, spreading bogus theories on the perils of 5G wireless technology and false claims about covid-19 vaccinations.

The dispute between Australia and Facebook dates to when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the country's top competition authority, began drafting a bill last year. Australian officials have said the bill's main goal was to create the conditions for deals between platforms and publishers, which have been at odds for years over the value of journalism and whether either side should be paid by the other.

Google and Facebook, which have been accustomed to largely not paying for news content, both balked at the proposed legislation. In August, Facebook said it would block users and news organizations in Australia from posting local and international news stories on its social network and Instagram if the bill were to move forward. Last month, Google also threatened to make its search engine unavailable in Australia if the government approved the legislation.

But in recent weeks, Google began striking deals with media companies such as Reuters, The Financial Times and News Corp.

Facebook, by contrast, held firm against the proposed legislation. That was because the code contained terms such as "final arbitration," which would give an independent arbiter the power to set the price for news content if a publisher and the digital platform could not agree on a payment.

Facebook has repeatedly argued that the legislation gets the value proposition backward because it has said it is the one that provides value to news publishers by sending traffic to media websites, which can then be monetized with advertising.

But supporters of the measure have said that final arbitration -- which is used for contract disputes between players and Major League Baseball in the United States -- provides needed leverage when one side is powerful enough to otherwise avoid negotiation if it chooses.

"The key is, and remains, the mandatory arbitration clause," said Johan Lidberg, a media professor at Monash University in Melbourne. "That has to be maintained; without it, the code would be toothless."

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