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Canberra’s fight with Facebook is nothing new

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Opinion

Ian Martin

Governments have been balancing disruptive technologies and established interests since the telegraph arrived.

Ian MartinContributor

The willingness of the Australian government to take on global social media giants in defence of diversity in Australia’s commercial media might have surprised some people. However, there is a long history of Australian governments working to balance global communications interests with domestic communications policy.

In 1853 a young Canadian, Samuel McGowan, arrived in Melbourne with Australia’s first electronic communications investment including telegraphy kit, telegraphy experts and a business plan to connect Victoria’s goldfields to Melbourne and the other colonies.

Telstra’s Sol Trujillo was bypassed when he took on the Rudd government over broadband.  Getty

Media interests of the day were enthusiastic but wary of the disruptive role private telegraphy might play. The Victorian Legislative Council quickly passed the Electric Telegraphy Act 1854, which reserved telegraphy service to the government.

Following its assent, lieutenant-governor Charles La Trobe reported to the council: “It is with some degree of pride that I claim for Victoria the first successful application of the system of Electric Telegraph communication within the southern hemisphere.” There was no mention of McGowan, although he was subsequently hired to run the new Victorian electric telegraph department.

Electronic communications became so important to the cohesion of the Australian colonies by the time of Federation that it had taken a prime position in section 51 of the constitution in terms of parliamentary powers, alongside trade and commerce, taxation and defence.

And the recurring theme of balancing global communications technology investment with local commercial and media interests played out numerous times through the 20th century. The response of the new Commonwealth government to the Marconi Company’s offers was to pass the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905 reserving wireless services to the government, and similar stories followed.

The model changed substantially in the 1990s when the Hawke government recognised that a well-regulated access regime could deliver the service benefits without discouraging investment in new technology and infrastructure. It licensed several overseas telecoms companies to offer services within a regulated access model.

The news media and digital platforms mandatory bargaining code follows a similar economic logic. It aim to rebalance bargaining power between social media platforms with great market power, and smaller service providers who gain from getting their content hosted on the platform.

Look no further than the response to Telstra a decade ago when it stood in the way of the Rudd government’s broadband vision.

Social media is another chapter in a long history of getting the gains from a rapidly growing global communications technology, while ensuring workable economics for the domestic markets that have to rely on the technology. There is also a need to make sure that enough media businesses survive to preserve diversity in the sector.

So now, well into the 21st century, with the internet established as a disruptive communications force in media and much of the rest of the economy, how far will the government go to ensure these technologies don’t further undermine media and other services? Look no further than the response to Telstra a decade ago when it stood in the way of the Rudd government’s vision for a national broadband network.

Telstra at that time was run by another American keen to make a point about commercial interest in technology deployment, its CEO Sol Trujillo. He had a good point in that the NBN could only be built with the use of Telstra’s $32 billion copper network.

All of the rival bidders for the NBN project in November 2008 expected to co-opt that network at no cost to themselves, but potentially leaving the government with a massive compensation bill. Telstra’s NBN bid was ruled out of contention when it withheld substantial parts of its bid while it sought assurance over its structure and commercial interests.

With its NBN plans in disarray, the Rudd government decided in April 2009 that it would bypass Telstra and build its own full fibre network at a cost of $43 billion – a massive underestimate, as it turned out.

Of course it was easier for government to make those open-ended commitments 10 years ago, when it carried little debt, and it may now be less willing to invest substantially to support rival social media platforms. On the other hand, they would be a lot cheaper to support financially than the NBN.

In any case, it’s not the support of rival platforms that is the issue in this case but, rather, the establishment of a model supported by regulation in which interests are sufficiently balanced to deal commercially with news companies in Australia.

Again, look at how far the Australian government and the competition regulator were prepared to go 10 years ago to encourage Telstra to see the merits of the NBN policy.

The lesson is to align interests

As it turned out, even with a full-fibre network, NBN Co still needed Telstra’s support to migrate customers from copper to fibre and to provide essential infrastructure.

To ensure it got that support, Parliament passed legislation in 2010 that would allow the minister to withhold spectrum from Telstra and apply punitive regulation if it didn’t reach a commercial agreement with NBN Co. And the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission helpfully dropped its valuation of the copper network to $17 billion. And that was an Australian company with 1.3 million shareholders.

If the social media companies want an outcome that works in their best long-term interest, they should study Telstra’s response after it had sent Trujillo home and established a more conciliatory management team. Co-operate, align your interests with government policy, get a long-dated agreement, and get it in writing, because the contract is protected by the constitution.

Faced with an implacable government and opportunistic regulation, Telstra was in a weak bargaining position in 2010. In those circumstances it negotiated a remarkable agreement that protected much of the shareholder investment threatened by the NBN. The outcome hurt Telstra financially as NBN migration peaked, but there is substantial ongoing value largely unrecognised in Telstra’s long-term NBN agreement.

Social media companies would do well to learn these lessons if they intend to continue to invest in the Australian communications market.

There is a well established history of government intervention to balance global and local interests, and the interests that have prospered over the years are those that have best recognised the required balance and worked towards it.

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Ian Martin is a senior telecommunications analyst at New Street Research.

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Hopes Google, Facebook deals will underpin a rise in journalism jobs

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“We have seen no guarantees from the big media companies that money raised from the digital platforms will be spent on journalism,” said MEAA Media federal president Marcus Strom said last week.

“If some of this the Facebook and Google’s massive Australian revenue is now to be returned to media companies, there must be a corresponding commitment that the money is spent on news content, not dividends or corporate bonuses. The media companies must provide transparency about how they intend to allocate these funds.“

There are signs at least some companies are already progressing with plans to do just that despite challenging market conditions.

Guardian Australia is expected to take another floor in its Surry Hills office for new employees while industry sources have indicated News Corp Australia, owner of The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun, is considering hiring almost 100 journalists with the money. News Corp declined to comment.

National broadcaster the ABC has not yet signed any deals with Google or Facebook but has pledged it will use the money to invest in regional journalism.

But Nine, which owns television, radio and newspaper assets (including this masthead) has been less explicit. A spokesperson for Nine referred back to comments made publicly by chief executive Hugh Marks.

Mr Marks said at a Senate inquiry more than one week ago that if funding from tech giants wasn’t secured, job losses at Nine’s publications would continue.

Following the company’s half-year financial results last week, Mr Marks indicated the company would consider hiring new journalists. “You won’t be able to say a dollar here goes to $1 there but you can look at that business and say it’s a strong viable sustainable publishing business that will be able to support journalism going forward,” he said.

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“If there are opportunities for us to employ more journalists to get a positive result then we will do that. But it certainly underpins the future of journalism in this market.”

Seven West Media chief executive James Warburton said most of the money the company expects to gain from its deals with Google and Facebook will be used for Perth based newspaper The West Australian and its regional titles. He initially said the cash would be dropped to the bottom line and be used for repayment of debt but now says it will be focused on improving the newspapers’ digital strategy.

Seven’s deal also has a YouTube component, which means some of the money will be spent on television content.

“It will support quality journalism in metropolitan, regional and community markets and underpin the digital strength and sustainability of our news businesses going forward,” Mr Warburton said.

Industry sources who are familiar with the various agreements have said that some publishers have an audio component – which requires them to invest a large amount of money in areas such as podcasting. Other companies will use the money for distribution strategies to build their digital audiences.

For smaller outlets like Junkee, the money will provide an important backbone for the business to continue its work.

“We haven’t made any definitive decisions yet about how we’ll spend the money, but this moment presents a unique opportunity for us to invest in public interest journalism,” Junkee’s editorial director Rob Stott says. “We’ll be looking at a mix of original reporting and background infrastructure that will make Junkee a more sustainable operation into the future. I’m extremely excited about the potential for this funding to make a real difference to the breadth and depth of content we produce.”

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Facebook banned my perfectly harmless article – and I think I know why

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<b>Facebook</b> banned my perfectly harmless article – and I think I know why thumbnail

You start by excluding fascists, anti-vaxxers and conspiracists. You end by banning pretty much anyone you disagree with. In recent months, Facebook has taken to labelling as fake, or removing altogether, a number of stunningly inoffensive pieces: a study by the American researcher Dr Indur Goklany claiming (quite correctly) that the number of people dying globally as a result of natural disasters was falling; a column by the investigative journalist Ian Birrell questioning whether the WHO had been too hasty in ruling out the possibility of a Wuhan leak; a report by the leading Oxford epidemiologist, Dr Carl Heneghan, of a Danish study arguing that facemasks made little difference to the spread of Covid-19.

And, now, an article of mine. Last week, I wrote a piece for the John Locke Institute (JLI), a high-minded organisation that runs summer schools and seminars, mainly for sixth-formers, offering in-depth tuition in the humanities subjects. I advanced the view that the epidemic had made us more collectivist, and that the post-lockdown world would be relatively authoritarian. The JLI bought advertising on Facebook to promote the piece. Facebook first authorised the advertisements, then pulled them without explanation.

In my case, as in all the others, it is impossible to know what the offence was. None of the pieces was making tendentious claims, let alone promoting conspiracy theories. Since Facebook offers neither explanations nor an open appeals process, we can only guess.

Are algorithms set in such a way as to screen out Right-of-centre opinions? Are they overseen by people with an explicit agenda? Is Facebook responding to pile-ons by woke activists? Is the real objection not so much to the content as to the authors?

I suspect the last. A few weeks ago, Think Scotland, a Unionist website, tried to advertise two articles critical of Nicola Sturgeon. Facebook said no on the bizarre grounds that they violated its “Vaccine Discourager” guidelines. The editor, Brian Monteith, suspecting that Facebook was being pressurised by Cybernats, experimentally tried to advertise a wholly unpolitical article about a young mother potty-training her daughter. It, too, was rejected. Eventually, after a campaign mounted by Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, Facebook backed down.

For what it’s worth, I take the view that Facebook, as a private company, can run whatever adverts it likes. But let’s be absolutely clear that it is now a publisher – a publisher with an agenda. Any notion that Facebook (or Twitter, or YouTube) is simply a platform has gone. It is one more opinionated channel, alongside Fox News, Russia Today, the BBC and the Morning Star.

What is most interesting is not the fact that Facebook has its biases – we all have biases – but what those biases are. Bizarrely for a company that was originally meant to facilitate the free flow of ideas, it has become intolerant of dissent – or, at least, of certain forms dissent. You generally won’t get into trouble for denying Stalin’s crimes, boycotting Israel or celebrating Margaret Thatcher’s death. But question whether there is excessive use of state power in enforcing lockdowns or reducing carbon emissions and you may be excluded.

Indeed, we seem to be reaching the point where simply to call for free speech is becoming dangerous. To the extent that the JLI can be said to have a collective view on anything, it believes in heterodoxy. Its founder, a former Oxford academic called Martin Cox, ensures that his summer schools and seminars hear a range of views from top lecturers, and encourages his students to engage with ideas that might initially repel them. That is, if you think about it, the essence of liberalism.

The article of mine which JLI ran, the one Facebook found intolerable, was not about Covid-19 or public health. It was about the fragility of an open society, the way a shared threat can throw people back on their tribal instincts, and the consequent likelihood that powers seized by governments on a supposedly contingent basis in 2020 won’t be relinquished when the epidemic passes.

Any organisation that sees such opinions as unacceptable is – there is no other way to put this – hostile to liberty.

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Tragic reason why man tried to live stream death on Facebook

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A man who threatened to live stream his own death on Facebook after he was denied euthanasia despite a viral campaign now plans to travel to Switzerland to end his life.

Alain Cocq, 57, who suffers from a disease that is so rare that it does not even have a name, says he is in a permanent state of suffering.

His case went viral in September 2020 when he threatened to live stream his death on Facebook if French President Emmanuel Macron did not change the country’s laws to allow for assisted dying.

He had to give up on his project after Facebook cut the feed, but he is still advocating for changes in law and has now decided to go to Switzerland to be able to benefit from euthanasia there.

He is applying to the authorities in the Swiss capital Berne and he hopes to receive a positive response in the coming months, if not weeks.

Alain Cocq is now travelling to Switzerland after he was denied euthanasia. Source: Newsflash/Australscope

Alain Cocq is now travelling to Switzerland after he was denied euthanasia. Source: Newsflash/Australscope

Cocq suffers from a rare form of disease that has been described as being similar to ischaemia, which is when a restriction in blood being supplied to live tissue causes an oxygen shortage that damages the tissue and can cause dysfunctions.

There is no cure for his condition, which will, very slowly, prove fatal.

“I want end of life to become the primary theme of the presidential elections in 2022,” he told local French newspaper 20 Minutes.

Despite his appeal to the French president in September, President Macron said he was “unable to accede to his request” despite the “profound respect” he had for him.

The retired plumber, who has been ill for 34 years, is hoping the Swiss will help him end his life after a failed attempt with the European Court of human rights in 1993 and a first petition to the French government in 1994.

At the time, he was still in a wheelchair, but after that numerous cardiovascular and cerebral accidents rendered him permanently bedridden.

Australscope

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